What Is A Dermatologist?

Cynthia Bailey, MD|April 4, 2011

You're more likely to find the right solution for any skin problem if you start with the correct diagnosis.  Skin problems often look similar to the untrained eye - red, scaly, dry, blistered, bumpy etc,  and the best way to get the correct diagnosis is by seeing a Board Certified Dermatologist. Dermatologists are the medical experts for skin problems. Your skin only has so many different ways it can act up to tell you something is wrong.  The 'words' in your skin's 'vocabulary' can have subtle differences that are important for diagnosis.  For example, people often misinterpret the scale of seborrhea as 'dry skin', when, in fact, it's a rash (dermatitis).  Also, not every facial pustule is acne, a dermatologist may see them looking more consistent with a staph infection, a fungal or yeast infection, a rash like perioral dermatitis etc.    Your treatment will be different for each of these conditions.  If you want to get rid of a skin problem fast, there's no substitute for starting with the right diagnosis. Making sense out of the subtle differences between skin problems takes training and experience, and a Board Certified Dermatologist has extensive training to do this for you.  In the US, we dermatologists go to medical school for 4 years, after 4 years of college,  just like all MD's.  Then, after medical school we spend at least 3 more years studying just dermatology in a dermatology residency program. During our dermatology residency we are taught and supervised by physicians who have already completed this training and are experts in dermatology themselves.  We extensively study of the skin, we often do research on it too.  We treat patients with skin problems, we look at their skin biopsies under the microscope and learn to understand skin problems from the inside out.  We give talks on skin problems to other doctors and write papers on skin problems for medical journals.  We present our research or complex patient cases to doctors at scientific meetings and put ourselves in front of the world's skin experts for questions and comments.  We do this over and over again getting better and better at it.  Completing a dermatology residency qualifies a physician to be called a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. Most dermatologists however also sit for our long and difficult board exam.  Passing the board exam proves that we are qualified  to be considered a medical skin expert, called a Board Certified Dermatologist. The training process from college student to Board Certified Dermatologist is a long process.  I was 32 years old when I finished my formal education, passed my board exam and was able to enter dermatology practice as a Board Certified Dermatologist. It's important to know that not every physician claiming to specialize in medical and surgical skin treatment has completed a dermatology residency and passed the dermatology board exam; they may not be Board Certified, or even a Fellow of  the American Academy of Dermatology.  Any physician who completes medical school can treat skin problems and say that they practice dermatology.  The terminology is confusing and unfortunately patients can easily be misled.  If you want to find a skin expert with the highest level of training, look for a Board Certified Dermatologist who is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. Then, make sure you like your dermatologist's practice approach.  There are as many different physician practice styles as there are people. Be sure your dermatologist listens to you, that they are thorough in their examination of your skin, they explain your diagnosis and their treatment recommendations to you, and that you feel well taken care of by them and their office staff.

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