Titles and what they mean: Who is your healthcare provider?

Many people have been to the doctor’s office for routine physical’s or to a clinic for individual outpatient therapy and observed a variety of abbreviated letters next to the therapist’s or doctor’s last name. Most people know those letters are representative of some sort of work accomplishment or academic achievement. But I’m sure not a lot of people realize just how important these abbreviations actually are to their treatment.

It is important that we have some working knowledge of the types of degrees that exist. As recipients of treatment (medically or therapeutically) you deserve to know who is treating you, what level of education they received  and what your treatment team actually looks like.

One of the most important tools of empowerment for the patient is self-knowledge. Think of knowledge as a weapon to protect you. When you seek treatment  you need to be armed with knowledge of who has access to treating you and what their specialty is. For example, if you  seek counseling at a mental health center, you will need to know that there are Bachelor level or 4yr college level workers, Master’s level workers, that is, 4yrs college + 2-3years of advanced higher education and possibly 2-3 extra years of licensing training, LPC or LCSW (state licensed) workers, and MD workers (medical doctors or psychiatrists) who could counsel you. Those with advanced degrees usually have specialties such as with child and adolescents or Geriatrics. There are also Master’s level workers who are license eligible (eligible for state license, requiring 2yrs supervision before they can work solo).    


Let’s briefly review some commonly seen  abbreviations in health care settings:

  • BSW: The BSW degree (Bachelor of Social Work)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), BSW programs prepare students for direct-service positions such as case-worker or mental health assistants. These programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, and social welfare policy. Programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship. Some employers in counseling settings may hire workers who have a bachelor’s degree in social work to counsel clients.

  • MSW: The MSW degree (Master of Social Work)

MSW degree allows individuals to become licensed by their state, work under professional supervision, and practice social work independently. MSW degrees can be found in inpatient, community, and clinical settings. These individuals usually have a vast array of knowledge of social services in the community. License Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) is the professional license title.

  • B.A and B.S.: The Bachelor of Arts or science degree

Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees can be achieved at the college level, usually requiring four years of study.  Individuals with these degrees can work under the supervision, often as an assistant, of a therapist with a higher degree. Think of the B.A. and B.S. degrees as offering beginning educational and work experiences in psychology. You might find yourself receiving certain services in both inpatient and outpatient settings from an individual with a BA or BS, but service is limited and reviewed by an experienced worker. For example, a child who is receiving therapy in an outpatient clinical setting, might initially be interviewed by phone or in person by an individual with a bachelors degree, but later transfer to a therapist with a “higher” degree and more experience.

  • M.S and M.A: The Master of Science and Master of Arts degree

Individuals with this degree spend an extra 1-3yrs in higher education and professional training after college, which prepares them for more advanced work in the field of psychology. These individuals could work in the field as independent Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) and obtain a private practice.

  • PhD/PsyD: The Doctor of Philosophy) and Doctor of Psychology degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree allows a mental health professional to hold the title of a psychologist and practice independently in their state. These degrees often require 4+ years of graduate study.  These individuals can also become licensed by their state.

Keep in mind that it is also important to understand who your nurse is. There are some nurses who operate under the supervision of a licensed professional mental health worker or social worker. These nurses can provide psychiatric services, but to a limited degree.

Mental health treatment often consists of a collaborative process between patient and therapist. The therapeutic relationship is the most important component, not always the degree or title the individual possesses. However, it is still important that patients understand their healthcare provider’s experiences. This provides a safeguard for you and ensures appropriate services.

As Gandhi once said “You may never know what results come of your action[s], but if you do nothing there will be no result.”