Ask the Expert: What is Board Certification?

The Skin Cancer Foundation

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Q: What does it mean to be a “board-certified dermatologist,” and why is it important?

It all starts with the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), which currently recognizes 24 specialties, such as internal medicine and plastic surgery. Dermatology is one of them, and its official nonprofit, volunteer certifying board is the American Board of Dermatology (ABD).

The ABD says in the helpful FAQs for the public on its website ( that board certification is assurance that the certified physician has satisfactorily completed rigorous training in an accredited program and has passed a comprehensive examination. That initial certification is also the portal into a “career-spanning process of maintenance of certification (MOC) to continue that assurance.”

On a basic level, board certification does assure the public that I, Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, went to medical school and passed the licensure for the state (New York) in which I practice. I completed my internship and three years of an accredited residency in dermatology. I passed the very rigorous board certification exam. I know what I’m doing.

Being officially board certified doesn’t mean the physician is the most skilled person in the field, but it’s a good start. My husband, who is a plastic surgeon, and I go to a lot of medical conferences and meetings. We love learning. It energizes us. But some doctors take that board certification and don’t necessarily go to meetings, read a lot of literature or keep up in their specialty. That’s why MOC was created.

I also did a year-long fellowship in Mohs surgery with Perry Robins, MD (founder of The Skin Cancer Foundation in 1979 and still its chairman of the board). It was the best year of my life in terms of training, but some Mohs surgeons did not receive that level of training.

That adds another layer of confusion because starting in October 2021 there will be a new certifying exam for Mohs surgery within the board certification of dermatology. There may be very experienced Mohs surgeons who choose not to take this rigorous new exam, and that doesn’t mean they’re not good Mohs surgeons. There will be a period of transition, but soon it will be one more way to check on the credentials of your dermatologist.

Board certification alone is not the perfect way to find a dermatologist who is right for you, of course. You should seek good word of mouth and learn who has a solid reputation in your community. You may also want to see if the doctor’s personality meshes with your own so you can establish a long and rewarding partnership with your dermatologist. — Interview by Julie Bain

Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, is a clinical professor of dermatology in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU School of Medicine. Cofounder and codirector of Cosmetique Dermatology, Laser & Plastic Surgery LLP in Manhattan and Long Island, Dr. Sarnoff is also president of The Skin Cancer Foundation.

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