Clinical Psychologists and Psychiatrists: What’s the Difference?

Throughout the course of my career, many potential patients seem confused about what differentiates clinical psychologists from psychiatrists. In brief, here are some of the important distinctions.

Psychiatrists:

  • Doctoral degree (MD) in medicine (years).
  • Specialization in psychiatry, the area of medicine specifically charged with diagnosing, treating, and preventing nervous and mental disorders (three years in residency training).
  • Training bias to view clinically significant impairments in affective, behavioral, and cognitive functioning as a result of disease or defect.
  • The profession that developed the categorical diagnostic nosology (currently the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Nervous and Mental Disorders – 5th edition (DSM-5)) which lists (depending on how one calculates it) from 157 to almost 300 conditions, up from about two dozen 40 years ago.
  • Licensed by the state to diagnose and treat nervous and mental disorders.
  • Licensed to prescribe medication.
  • May be trained also as psychotherapists or psychoanalysts.

Clinical Psychologists

  • Doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in clinical psychology (5-7 years)
  • Trained to do applied practice with people experiencing problems in living, as well as to conduct quantitative and qualitative scientific research, and be informed consumers of research to bring cutting edge models and empirical findings to clinical work.
  • Specialization in psychology (the study of behavior and mental processes) with subspecialty working with people who display problems in affective, behavioral, and cognitive function that significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning.
  • Training bias to view clinically significant impairments as a result of maladaptation or reliance on flawed coping mechanisms
  • While able to use the DSM-5 to provide appropriate codes for insurance reimbursement, psychologists tend to be skeptical of the categorical approach to diagnosis (i.e., one has or does not have the condition) in favor of a more dimensional conceptualization that emphasizes degrees of adaptation and dysfunction, rather than disease and defect.
  • Licensed by the state to diagnose and treat nervous and mental disorders.
  • Trained to use empirically developed, objective, reliable, and valid measures of affective, behavioral, and cognitive function to assess a patient’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and use these findings to make actuarially based predictions about the best treatment approach.
  • May be trained as psychotherapists and psychoanalysts.