For the Public

What is an Addiction Specialist?


  • 1. What is an addiction specialist?

    An addiction specialist is a physician certified by the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM) and/or a psychiatrist certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), and who has demonstrated by education, experience, and examination the requisite knowledge and skills to provide prevention, screening, intervention, and treatment for substance use and addiction. Addiction can involve any one or more of these substances:  alcohol, tobacco, or other addicting drugs, including some prescription medications. In addition, addiction specialists can recognize and treat the psychological and physical complications of addiction.

    There are two routes to becoming an addiction specialist: addiction medicine and addiction psychiatry.  Addiction medicine is a specialized field of practice, and certification is bestowed by the ABAM. Candidates seeking certification must meet ABAM’s specific eligibility criteria. ABAM certification is open to physicians from all specialties who are board certified by an American Board of Medical Specialty (ABMS) member board or who have completed an Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) -accredited residency, and who meet ABAM’s additional criteria to sit for and pass the ABAM certification examination.  Addiction medicine has a unique body of knowledge and practice. Training for addiction medicine cannot be subsumed under another existing medical specialty. By the end of 2011, there were 2555 physicians certified in addiction medicine. While ABAM is not presently a member board of the ABMS, ABAM is taking the necessary steps to gain ABMS recognition.

    Addiction psychiatry is a subspecialty of psychiatry. Addiction psychiatry certification is bestowed by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). Only psychiatrists can receive the addiction psychiatry subspecialty certificate. Psychiatrists interested in this subspecialty must complete a 1-year addiction psychiatry residency that has been accredited by the ACGME, meet the ABPN eligibility criteria and pass the ABPN certification examination. About 2000 psychiatrists have been certified in addiction psychiatry.

    Board certification demonstrates that a physician has knowledge and expertise to provide medical care in a given specialty. State licensure is a separate and mandatory process required for every physician to practice in a given state.


  • 2. What is an addiction medicine physician?

    “The addiction medicine physician provides medical care within the bio-psycho-social framework for persons with addiction, for the individual with substance-related health conditions, for persons who manifest unhealthy substance use, and for family members whose health and functioning are affected by another’s substance use or addiction.   Board-certified addiction medicine physicians are also board-certified in another medical specialty, prior to meeting requirements for board certification by the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM).

    “The addiction medicine physician is specifically trained in a wide range of prevention, evaluation and treatment modalities addressing substance use and addiction in ambulatory care settings, acute care and long-term care facilities, psychiatric settings, and residential facilities.  Addiction medicine physicians often offer treatment for patients with addiction or unhealthy substance use who have co-occurring general medical and psychiatric conditions.

    “The addiction medicine physician is a key member of the health care team and is trained to coordinate and provide consultation services for other physicians and to use community resources when appropriate. Some addiction medicine physicians limit their practice to patients with addiction or other patterns of unhealthy substance use. Others focus their practice on patients within their initial medical specialty who have substance-related health conditions.  Addiction medicine physicians work in clinical medicine, public health, educational, and research settings to advance the prevention and treatment of addiction and substance-related health conditions and to improve the health and functioning of persons with unhealthy substance use or who are affected family members of unhealthy substance users.”  Scope of Practice of Addiction Medicine, March 11, 2010; Copyright 2010, The ABAM Foundation, Inc.


  • 3. Who recognizes addiction medicine as a specialized area of medical practice?

    The American Medical Association (AMA), in 1988, granted the American Society of Addiction Medicine a seat, with vote, in the AMA House of Delegates. In 1990, the AMA recognized addiction medicine as a "self-designated specialty," and has designated a specific code ("ADM') that physicians can select as their specialty, and that will be listed as such in the AMA Physician Masterfile.

    The U.S. Drug Abuse Treatment Act (DATA) signed into law in 2000 (DATA 2000) recognizes certification in addiction medicine as a credential that allows physicians to prescribe "narcotic drugs in Schedule III, IV, or V or combinations of such drugs to patients for maintenance or detoxification treatment."

    The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recognize addiction medicine as eligible for reimbursement. Coding of Specialty Codes

    Divisions of addiction services in several state health departments require that medical directors of public treatment programs be ASAM-Certified (the certification process that was the predecessor to ABAM’s processes of certifying physician specialists in addiction medicine via examination). These states include Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina.  Other states, such as Wisconsin, recognize ABAM and ASAM certification as a measure of physician knowledge and skills to treat patients with addiction and hold clinical leadership positions in state-certified treatment agencies and programs.

    Many hospitals and insurance companies recognize addiction medicine and ABAM certification.


  • 4. How to find an addiction specialist?

    To find an ASAM member go to the ASAM Physician Finder.

    Note that ASAM administered the exam for physicians to be certified in addiction medicine from 1984 - 2008. The American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM) started administering the exam in 2010. Please contact ASAM to verify the certification status of a particular member.

    To find an ABAM certified physician go to the website of the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM) and use the Find a Doctor tool.

    To find an AAAP member to the Patient Referral Program of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP).


  • 5. How to find a physician certified to prescribe buprenorphine?

  • 6. What are other resources about addiction specialists?