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Who's Who in Your Doctor's Office?

How to tell your MD from your NP, RN and PA

  • Photograph by Sue Tallon, styling by Thea Chalmers

    Behind the Coat

    En español l Back in the day, there were doctors and nurses. Now a plethora of health care professionals may be caring for you. Here’s how to keep them straight.

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    Physician (MD)

    The physicians are still the ones in charge — and those with the most training, as indicated by the length of their white coats, the longest of any health care professionals. MDs have 3 to 7 years of training after med school.

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    Physician assistant (PA)

    PAs can diagnose, and prescribe lab tests, treatment and medication. They typically have a master’s degree plus 2,000 hours of training with patients while in PA school. A PA’s white coat is a little shorter than a physician’s.

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    Nurse practitioner (NP)

    An NP has a master’s degree, which includes 500 to 700 hours of direct patient care during nursing school. NPs can do much of what doctors do, including diagnose you and prescribe medications.

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    Medical student

    A medical student is a physician in training and wears a hip-length white coat. He or she can take a medical history, but the prescribing of meds or diagnostic tests needs approval from a supervising physician.

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    Registered nurse (RN)

    Certified and licensed by the state, RNs administer meds, provide care and otherwise manage patient care. The iconic nurse’s cap all but disappeared by the 1980s, as more men became nurses and there was a switch to unisex scrubs.

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    Techs are in charge of performing routine tests, such as drawing blood and running EKGs. They are usually certified by the state, and they typically wear scrubs. Many technicians have an associate’s degree in clinical laboratory science.

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