What does "board certified" mean--is it different from being licensed?
Yes, it is different. Every physician must hold a license to practice medicine. Medical boards in U.S. states and other jurisdictions (such as Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, and so forth) issue licenses. These boards have legal authority to issue licenses, investigate and discipline practitioners, and regulate the practice of medicine within their state or territory.
In addition to licensing, some physicians may be board certified in their specialty. These boards are different from the state boards that issue licenses. Practitioners of a certain medical specialty can establish a specialty board or professional association. The specialty board or association determines appropriate qualifications (such as examinations, competency demonstrations, or training) which show an acceptable minimum level of knowledge and awards a certificate or certification to those practitioners who meet the qualifications. Every recognized medical specialty and many subspecialties have established boards to examine the qualifications of physicians practicing that specialty. Typically, physicians who have completed a period of training ("residency") in a particular specialty and who pass an examination given by the board of that specialty are then qualified to become "board certified."
Traditionally, when a physician says s/he is 'board certified', s/he is claiming to be certified by a specialty board recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. There may be other boards issuing similar certifications; requirements may be similar or different.
Can a physician practice a specialty in which s/he isn't board certified?
Yes. In Oregon, a physician may practice any specialty without being certified by any specialty board. However, Oregon law does require that the physician meet the "standard of care" in any field he or she chooses to practice. This means that the care rendered must be that which is reasonably expected of an appropriately trained physician in the setting involved. Board certification neither guarantees that that standard is met, nor does lack of board certification mean that the standard would not be met. It merely indicates that at one point in time, a physician undertook and successfully completed a formal course of training (the residency" described above) and passed an examination administered by the board of that specialty. Most specialty boards now require some sort of recertification examination of their certificate holders, but this is at the discretion of that particular board.
Is a board certified physician better than a physician who isn't board certified?
Not necessarily. Board certification demonstrates that the physician has met the requirements of a particular board for that particular certification. This usually involves successful completion of a specific amount of training and passing an examination. Physicians who are not board certified may be as well qualified as those who are. Some specialty boards require the doctor to complete some amount of continuing medical education in order to remain board certified after her/his initial qualification.
Source: Oregon Board of Medical Examiners Web site - 2/11/2003 http://www.bme.state.or.us/faqpts.html#8