There are two primary types of medical licenses: national and state licenses. Each serves a unique purpose and comes with its own requirements and benefits.
So what’s the difference between national and state medical licenses?
National medical license
A national medical license, also known as a medical degree or certification, represents your qualifications as a medical professional. In the United States, it is typically conferred upon completion of medical school, followed by a residency program. The process is overseen by national organizations like the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) and the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG).
State medical license
A state medical license, on the other hand, is permission granted by an individual state’s medical board that allows you to practice medicine within that specific state. These licenses are issued and regulated on a state-by-state basis, meaning you must apply for and obtain a license for each state in which you plan to practice. State licensing boards establish their own requirements, including examinations, fees and background checks.
Differences between national and state medical licenses
National licensing organizations, such as the NBME and ECFMG, are responsible for overseeing the standardization of medical qualifications and certifications. These organizations ensure physicians across the country meet the same educational and training standards.
State medical boards independently regulate the practice of medicine within their jurisdictions. They establish their own rules, requirements and licensing procedures, which may vary from state to state.
Application and examination
The application for your national medical license typically occurs during your medical school years and is based on your academic performance and successful completion of the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). It is a one-time process that affirms your ability to practice medicine generally.
To obtain a state medical license, you must apply directly to the respective state’s medical board. This process usually involves passing the state’s licensing examination, which may be in addition to national exams. Background checks, verification of education and other state-specific requirements are common.
Renewal and maintenance
Once obtained, your national medical license does not require periodic renewal or maintenance. It serves as a permanent reflection of your medical qualifications.
State licenses typically require regular renewal, and the renewal process varies from state to state. Physicians must meet continuing education requirements, stay current with medical practice standards and pay renewal fees to maintain their state licenses.
Scope of practice
The national license does not define your scope of practice. It merely validates your medical knowledge and credentials. Your scope of practice is determined by the state license(s) you hold.
Your state license outlines the specific scope of practice you are authorized to undertake within that state. The scope can include restrictions or additional qualifications depending on state regulations.
Interstate Medical Licensure Compact
To address the complexities of state-by-state licensing, the IMLC was established in some states. It allows qualified physicians to practice across multiple participating states with a single application.
For states not part of the IMLC, the traditional, separate state licensing process applies.
Keeping these distinctions in mind will help you navigate the licensing process effectively and ensure a successful and legally compliant medical career.