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Foot & Ankle Patient Education

The Difference Between Orthopedics and Podiatry: The answer starts with two letters — M.D.

We are often asked the question, “What is the difference between orthopedics and podiatry?” The question itself reveals genuine public uncertainty because terms such as “doctor,” “foot and ankle specialist,” and “foot and ankle surgeon” are used in both specialties, thus generating confusion.

Yet despite the perception that the two professions are similar, or in some minds even synonymous, they are not. A very important and distinct practice difference exists between them from the very outset of the educational and training pathway, and they never overlap at any point along the way.

What is the difference? The answer is simple. It starts with two letters: “M.D.”

Orthopedic practice starts in medical school. When asked, most patients think of a “doctor” as being synonymous with “M.D.” — like their family doctor. However, with foot and ankle care the distinction of M.D. belongs only to the orthopedic provider, not to the podiatrist. A podiatrist does not attend “medical school” and therefore cannot be licensed as a “medical doctor (MD).” This results in a completely different frame of reference for diagnosing and treating foot and ankle problems.

So when you see the term “doctor” look for the two letters, MD. In those two letters you can rest assured that the “doctor” has endured the rigors of medical school and has passed nationally standardized boards (testing) in order to be licensed. An orthopedic doctor must also complete five years of orthopedic residency training involving the entire musculoskeletal system, usually followed by advanced specialty (“fellowship”) training with the elder experts of orthopedic specialty care, such as the foot and ankle. This comprehensive training prepares the surgeon for frequent exposure to both complex and straightforward foot and ankle conditions.

In the end, the two paths (orthopedics and podiatry) are irreversibly separated. In the end, the orthopedic M.D. is truly a foot and ankle specialist.