Physician or Surgeon
Physician or Surgeon
What Physicians and Surgeons Do
Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses and address health maintenance. 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 work in all specialties.
Physicians and surgeons typically do the following:
- Take a patient’s medical history and perform a physical exam
- Document and update charts and patient information to show findings and treatments
- Order tests and consultations for other physicians or healthcare staff to perform
- Review test results to identify abnormal findings
- Recommend, design, and implement a treatment plan
- 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 focus on a particular type of practice. Within their area of focus, they also may specialize or subspecialize. The following are examples of types of physicians and surgeons:
Anesthesiologists focus on the care of surgical patients and on pain relief. They administer drugs (anesthetics) that reduce or eliminate the sensation of pain during an operation or another medical procedure. During surgery, they adjust the amount of anesthetic as needed and monitor the patient's heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and breathing. They also provide pain relief for patients in intensive care, for women in labor, and for patients suffering from chronic pain.
Cardiologists diagnose and treat diseases or conditions of the heart and blood vessels, such as valve problems, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. Cardiologists may work with adults or specialize in pediatrics (typically newborns through age 21). Although they treat many of the same disorders in either population, cardiologists in pediatric care focus on conditions that patients are born with rather than on those that develop later in life.
Dermatologists provide care for diseases relating to the skin, hair, and nails. They treat patients who may have melanoma or other skin cancers. They may offer both medical and surgical dermatology services.
Emergency medicine physicians treat patients in urgent medical situations. These physicians evaluate, care for, and stabilize patients whose illness or injury requires immediate attention. Unlike many other physicians, who often choose to specialize, most emergency medical physicians are generalists.
Family medicine physicians are generalists who address health maintenance and assess and treat conditions that occur in everyday life. These conditions include sinus and respiratory infections, intestinal ailments, and broken bones. Family medicine physicians typically have regular, long-term patients, who may include all members of the same household.
General internal medicine physicians diagnose and provide nonsurgical treatment for a range of problems that affect internal organs and systems such as the stomach, kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. Internists use a variety of diagnostic techniques to treat patients through medication or hospitalization. Their patients are mostly adults. They may specialize, such as in gastroenterology or endocrinology.
Neurologists diagnose and treat those with disorders of the brain and nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and epilepsy. These physicians may specialize in one or more conditions, or they may work as pediatric neurologists to diagnose and manage the care of children with autism, behavioral disorders, or other neurological conditions.
Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) provide care and counsel to women regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and the female reproductive system. They also diagnose and treat health issues specific to women, such as cervical cancer, ovarian cysts, and symptoms related to menopause.
Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat conditions of the eye. Treatment may include surgery to correct vision problems or to prevent vision loss from glaucoma and other diseases. Ophthalmologists also may fit eyeglasses, prescribe contact lenses, and provide other vision services.
Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat conditions of or injuries to the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They may specialize in certain areas of the body, such as the foot and ankle, or in a particular type of practice, such as sports medicine.
Pathologists test body tissue, fluids, and organs and review test results to diagnose diseases. These physicians may choose specializations that include clinical pathology, which focuses on laboratory analysis of bodily fluids, and anatomical pathology, which focuses on examinations of tissue and other samples acquired through autopsy or surgery.
Pediatricians provide care for infants, children, teenagers, and young adults. They specialize in diagnosing and treating problems specific to younger people. Most pediatricians administer vaccinations and treat common illnesses, minor injuries, and infectious diseases. Some pediatricians specialize in serious medical conditions that commonly affect younger patients, such as autoimmune disorders.
Pediatric surgeons diagnose, treat, and manage a variety of disorders and diseases in fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents. These surgeons collaborate with physicians involved in a child’s medical care—including neonatologists, pediatricians, and family medicine physicians—to determine the best treatment options for the child.
Psychiatrists are primary mental health physicians. They diagnose and treat mental illnesses through a combination of personal counseling (psychotherapy), psychoanalysis, hospitalization, and medication. Psychotherapy involves psychiatrists helping their clients change behavioral patterns and explore past experiences. Psychoanalysis involves long-term psychotherapy and counseling. Psychiatrists may prescribe medications to correct chemical imbalances that cause some mental illnesses.
Radiologists review and interpret x rays and other medical images, such as ultrasounds, to diagnose injuries or diseases. They may specialize, such as in diagnostic radiology, which involves reviewing images and recommending treatment or additional testing, or in interventional radiology, which includes diagnosing patients and treating them with minimally invasive techniques.
Physicians in healthcare establishments work daily with other healthcare staff, such as registered nurses, other physicians, medical assistants, and medical records and health information technicians.
Some physicians choose to work in fields that do not involve patient care, such as medical research or public policy.
Physicians and surgeons held about 816,900 jobs in 2022. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up physicians and surgeons was distributed as follows:
|Physicians, all other
|Family medicine physicians
|General internal medicine physicians
|Emergency medicine physicians
|Surgeons, all other
|Obstetricians and gynecologists
|Orthopedic surgeons, except pediatric
|Ophthalmologists, except pediatric
Physicians and surgeons work in both clinical and nonclinical settings. Some examples of clinical settings are physicians' offices and hospitals, including academic hospitals associated with residency programs or schools of medicine. Nonclinical settings include government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and insurance companies.
In clinical settings, physicians may work as part of a group practice or healthcare organization. These arrangements allow them to coordinate patient care but give them less independence than solo practitioners have.
Physicians and surgeons may stand for long periods throughout the day. Other working conditions may vary by specialty. For example, surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in a sterile environment and must follow protocol to maintain it during procedures.
Most physicians and surgeons work full time. Some work more than 40 hours per week. Many physicians and surgeons work long shifts, which may include irregular and overnight hours or being on call. Physicians and surgeons may travel between their offices and the hospital to care for patients. While on call, a physician may need to address a patient’s concerns over the phone or make an emergency visit to another location, such as a nursing home.
How to Become a Physician or Surgeon
Physicians and surgeons typically need a bachelor’s degree as well as a degree from a medical school, which takes an additional 4 years to complete. Depending on their specialty, they also need 3 to 9 years in internship and residency programs. Subspecialization includes additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.
In addition to requiring a bachelor’s degree, physicians and surgeons typically need either a Medical Doctor (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. No specific undergraduate degree is required to enter an M.D. or D.O. program, but applicants to medical school usually have studied subjects such as biology, physical science, or healthcare and related fields.
Medical schools are highly competitive. Applicants usually must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and letters of recommendation. Medical 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.
Some medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last 6 to 8 years. Schools may also offer combined graduate degrees, such as M.D.-Ph.D., M.D.-MBA, and M.D.-MPH.
Students spend the first phase of medical school in classrooms, small groups, and laboratories, 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 second phase of medical school, students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics. They gain experience in diagnosing and treating illnesses through clerkships, or rotations, in a variety of areas, including internal medicine, pediatrics, and surgery.
After medical school, almost all graduates enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital or clinic and varies in duration, typically lasting from 3 to 9 years, depending on the specialty. Subspecialization, such as infectious diseases or hand surgery, includes additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
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.
Licensure requirements include passing standardized national exams. 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.
Board certification in a specialty is not required for physicians and surgeons; however, it may increase their employment opportunities. M.D.s and D.O.s seeking board certification in a specialty may spend up to 9 years in residency training; the length of time varies with the specialty. To become board certified, candidates must complete a residency program and pass a specialty certification exam from a medical certifying board. Examples of certifying boards include the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), and the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS).
Overall employment of physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 3 percent from 2022 to 2032, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
About 24,200 openings for physicians and surgeons are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Projected employment of physicians and surgeons varies by occupation (see table). Population growth and an increasing number of older adults, who have a higher likelihood than young people of experiencing health problems and of needing complex care, are expected to drive overall employment growth for physician and surgeons.
Growing demand for psychiatric care and improved access to mental health services will contribute to a need for psychiatrists.
Increasing rates of chronic illnesses—such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease—will result in continued reliance on physicians and surgeons by large numbers of people seeking medical care.
Contacts for More Information
For more information about physicians and surgeons, visit
For more information about various medical specialties, visit
For a list of medical schools and residency programs, as well as for general information on premedical education, financial aid, and medicine as a career, visit
For information about licensing, visit
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of physicians and surgeons.
|Median Annual Pay, May 2022
Chiropractors evaluate and treat patients' neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
|Doctoral or professional degree
Dentists diagnose and treat problems with patients’ teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth.
|Doctoral or professional degree
|Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners coordinate patient care and may provide primary and specialty healthcare.
Optometrists diagnose, manage, and treat conditions and diseases of the human eye and visual system, including examining eyes and prescribing corrective lenses.
|Doctoral or professional degree
Physician assistants examine, diagnose, and treat patients under the supervision of a physician.
Podiatrists provide medical and surgical care for people with foot, ankle, and lower leg problems.
|Doctoral or professional degree
Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care and educate patients and the public about various health conditions.
Veterinarians care for the health of animals and work to protect public health.
|Doctoral or professional degree