Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses.
What they do
Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They often counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.
There are two types of physicians, with similar degrees: M.D. (Medical Doctor) and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Both use the same methods of treatment, including drugs and surgery, but D.O.s place additional emphasis on the body's musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine, and holistic (whole-person) patient care. D.O.s are most likely to be primary care physicians, although they can be found in all specialties.
Physicians and surgeons typically do the following:
- Take a patient’s medical history
- Update charts and patient information to show current findings and treatments
- Order tests for nurses or other healthcare staff to perform
- Review test results to identify any abnormal findings
- Recommend and design a plan of treatment
- Address concerns or answer questions that patients have about their health and well-being
- Help patients take care of their health by discussing topics such as proper nutrition and hygiene
Physicians and surgeons work in one or more specialties.
Many physicians and surgeons work in physicians’ offices. Others worked in hospitals, in academia, or for the government.
Increasingly, physicians are working in group practices, healthcare organizations, or hospitals, where they share a large number of patients with other doctors. The group setting allows them more time off and lets them coordinate care for their patients, but it gives them less independence than solo practitioners have.
Surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in sterile environments while performing surgery and may stand for long periods.
How to become a physician or surgeon
Physicians and surgeons have demanding education and training requirements. Physicians typically need a bachelor’s degree, a degree from a medical school, which takes 4 years to complete, and, depending on their specialty, 3 to 7 years in internship and residency programs.
Most applicants to medical school have at least a bachelor's degree, and many have advanced degrees. Although no specific major is required, students usually complete undergraduate work in biology, chemistry, physics, math, and English. Students also may take courses in the humanities and social sciences. In addition, some students volunteer at local hospitals or clinics to gain experience in a healthcare setting.
Medical schools are highly competitive. Most applicants must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and letters of recommendation. Schools also consider an applicant’s personality, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities. Most schools require applicants to interview with members of the admissions committee.
A few medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last 6 to 8 years.
Students spend most of the first 2 years of medical school in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, psychology, medical ethics, and in the laws governing medicine. They also gain practical skills; learning to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.
During their last 2 years, medical students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics. Through rotations in internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery, they gain experience in diagnosing and treating illnesses in a variety of areas.
After medical school, almost all graduates enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital and varies in duration, generally lasting from 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty.
All states require physicians and surgeons to be licensed; requirements vary by state. To qualify for a license, candidates must graduate from an accredited medical school and complete residency training in their specialty.
All physicians and surgeons also must pass a standardized national licensure exam. M.D.s take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). For specific state information about licensing, contact your state’s medical board.
Wages for physicians and surgeons are among the highest of all occupations, with a median wage equal to or greater than $208,000 per year. Median wages showing the differences in pay between types of physicians and surgeons are not available, but mean (average) annual wages for physicians and surgeons in May 2019 were as follows:
|Obstetricians and gynecologists||233,610|
|Family and general practitioners||213,270|
|Physicians and surgeons, all other||203,450|
Overall employment of physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 4 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
The growing and aging population is expected to drive overall growth in the demand for physician services. As the older population grows and rates of chronic illnesses increase, consumers will seek high levels of care that use the latest technologies, diagnostic tests, and therapies.
Similar Job Titles
Cardiovascular Surgeon, General Surgeon, Hand Surgeon, Orthopaedic Surgeon, Orthopedic Surgeon, Physician, Plastic Surgeon, Surgeon, Thoracic Surgeon, Vascular Surgeon, Allergist and Immunologist, Dermatologist, Neurologist, Nuclear Medicine Physician, Ophthalmologist, Pathologist, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician, Preventive Medicine Physician, Radiologist, Sports Medicine Physician, Urologist, Allopathic Physician and Surgeon
Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Pharmacist, Hospitalist, Nurse Midwife, Nurse Practitioner
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
- American Association for Hand Surgery
- American College of Surgeons
- American Medical Association
- American Pediatric Surgical Association
- American Society for Surgery of the Hand
- American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery
- American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
- American Society of General Surgeons
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine
- American Board of Anesthesiology
- American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- American College of Surgeons
- American Medical Association
- American Osteopathic Association
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Society of Anesthesiologists
Magazines and Publications
Repairing injuries… preventing disease… even transplanting organs: surgeons are literally on the “cutting edge” of medicine. Unless it’s an emergency situation, the surgeon meets with the patient and listens to the problem. The doctor does an examination and considers medical history, lab work and other possible treatments before deciding on the need for surgery. Possessing that famous "good bedside manner" can help in explaining the diagnosis, the risks of the operation, and the patient's responsibilities before and after the procedure. In the operating room, the surgeon is assisted by an entire team. They handle preparation, monitoring and other tasks, so that the surgeon can concentrate on the delicate work involved in operating. Besides extensive medical knowledge, being a surgeon requires exacting precision, dexterity and stamina. Some procedures take hours to perform. After the surgery is over, the surgeon checks patients to see how they are recovering. Emergencies may result in the surgeon being called at any hour of the day or night. Surgeons may manage a busy private practice, or conduct research. They keep detailed records on patients and often write reports. Some develop new surgical techniques that they teach to other surgeons or students. This career requires a significant investment of education. Surgeons tackle a four-year bachelor’s degree, followed by four years of medical school, then 5-8 years post-medical school training depending on the surgical specialty. Surgeons make up America's single largest group of medical specialists. Few people come closer to actually holding someone's life in their hands than surgeons do.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org