Maybe you’re trying to lose weight and aren’t sure if you should see a nutritionist or a dietician. Or maybe you’re experiencing back pain and don’t know what kind of fixes you might expect from a chiropractor versus a physical therapist. Medical professionals often have tricky titles, but it’s worth understanding some of the nuances. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you sort out the differences between pairs of health experts who are often confused with one another.
Anyone can call himself a nutritionist, since the term isn’t regulated, says Cara Harbstreet, RDN, of Street Smart Nutrition. Dieticians—aka registered dieticians (RDs) or registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs)—on the other hand, have to go through extensive schooling and obtain a specific license. Dieticians need at least a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of 1,200 supervised practice hours. They also have to pass a national exam and complete ongoing nutrition education throughout their careers.
A personal trainer helps you craft an exercise routine, while an athletic trainer is specifically focused on preventing and treating injuries, says Jace Duke, ATC, LAT, a licensed athletic trainer at Houston Methodist Hospital. Personal trainers tend to work in gyms or health clubs, while athletic trainers usually work in schools, professional sporting facilities, and hospitals (where they often consult with physicians). Another point of distinction: All athletic trainers must have at least a bachelor’s degree in athletic training and be credentialed, but the title of “personal trainer” is unregulated. That said, some personal trainers do go through specific training; for example, someone who calls herself an ACSM-certified personal trainer has completed a program that’s run by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Psychiatrists are MDs who have completed medical school, as well as an internship and residency in psychiatry, while psychologists have gone to graduate school to get a PhD or PsyD, says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author. From a patient perspective, the biggest difference is probably that psychiatrists can write prescriptions for medication (such as antidepressants). Psychologists can’t. It’s also worth noting that while both professionals can choose to offer talk therapy, many psychiatrists today tend to focus solely on medication management. That’s why some patients who need medication choose to see a psychiatrist (for meds) as well as a psychologist or other mental health professional (such as a social worker) for therapy.
“A gastroenterologist is usually the right doctor to start with if you’re having GI problems,” says Val Ulene, MD, cofounder and medical director of Clear Health Advisors. Gastroenterologists can usually figure out what’s at the root of a patient’s tummy troubles and develop a treatment plan. They can also perform screening tests like endoscopies and colonoscopies, but they can’t perform surgery. If you end up needing surgery in your lower digestive tract, your doc will refer you to a colorectal surgeon (aka a proctologist).
Chiropractors are often considered alternative health practitioners, whereas physical therapists are more in line with the Western approach to medicine. Both have some specialized training: Chiropractors have a DC degree from a chiropractic college; physical therapists have a DPT degree from a physical therapy program. “Chiropractors use adjustments to free up nerve interference that comes from the spine. Their specialty is disc and spinal issues,” says Matt Tanneberg, DC, a sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Phoenix. (Here are 7 things your chiropractor knows about you the minute you walk into the room.) Physical therapists, on the other hand, concentrate on keeping people mobile—especially after a surgery or injury that has impaired strength and functioning in any part of the body, says Denise Smith, PT, of Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy.
“Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have an advanced degree [masters is required, doctorate is preferred] and a national board certification in a specialty area such as family practice, pediatrics, or women’s health,” says Nancy Brook, NP, a nurse practitioner and author of the handbook The Nurse Practitioner’s Bag. In some states, nurse practitioners are able to work independently of physicians and can even prescribe medication. Physician assistants, on the other hand, work directly under the supervision of a doctor—often in operating rooms where they help out during surgery. Physician assistants must complete a post-baccalaureate program (18–24 months of schooling); most also have a bachelor’s degree.
Ophthalmologists are MDs who specialize in the medical care of the eyes. They have extensive education (including medical school, an internship, and three or more years of specialized training in eye care) and can perform surgery. Optometrists have a degree from an accredited optometry college, but they have not attended medical school. Both experts can do eye exams and prescribe glasses and contacts, but only an ophthalmologist can perform surgery.
Both are generalists, with a slight twist: “The major difference is that a family physician takes care of patients of all age groups [including babies, kids, and adults], whereas internists focus solely on adult patients,” says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, an internist and attending physician at NYU Langone Medical Center. Which one you choose is really a matter of personal preference. “Some people like having one doctor take care of the health needs of the entire family, while others may prefer to see a internist for themselves and a pediatrician for their children,” says Okeke-Igbokwe.
Find out more at Prevention