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What Physicians and Surgeons Do About this section

Physicians and surgeons
Physicians often work closely with other healthcare staff including physician assistants, registered nurses, and medical records and health information technicians.

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. 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.

Duties

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 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. 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 assess and treat a range of 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.

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 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 in diagnostic radiology, which involves reviewing images and recommending treatment or additional testing; interventional radiology, which includes diagnosing patients and treating them with minimally invasive techniques; or radiation oncology, which requires prescribing and overseeing radiation to treat cancer.

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. 

Work Environment About this section

Physicians and surgeons
Surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in well-lighted, sterile environments, and often stand for long periods.

Physicians and surgeons held about 752,400 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up physicians and surgeons was distributed as follows:

Physicians, all other; and ophthalmologists, except pediatric 429,500
Family medicine physicians 119,300
General internal medicine physicians 49,500
Surgeons, except ophthalmologists 39,600
Anesthesiologists 33,800
Pediatricians, general 32,500
Psychiatrists 27,900
Obstetricians and gynecologists 20,300

Many physicians and surgeons work in physicians’ offices. Others work in hospitals, in academia, or for the government.

Physicians also may work as part of a group practice or healthcare organization. These settings allow them to coordinate patient care but give them less independence than solo practitioners have.

Surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in sterile environments during procedures and may stand for long periods.

Work Schedules

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 About this section

Physicians and surgeons
Physicians and surgeons may work in a medical specialty, such as cardiology, dermatology, pathology, or radiology.

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 7 years in internship and residency programs.

Education

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 major is required to enter an M.D. or D.O. program, but applicants to medical school usually have studied subjects such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Students also may take undergraduate courses in the humanities and social sciences and may choose to work or volunteer at a hospital or clinic to gain experience in a healthcare setting.

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.

Students spend most of their 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 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.

Training

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, typically lasting from 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty.

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.

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.

Certification 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 7 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 Surgery (ABS).

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Physicians and surgeons need to convey information effectively to their patients and to other healthcare workers. They also must be able to dictate or write reports that clearly describe a patient’s medical condition or procedure outcome.

Compassion. Patients who are sick or injured may be in extreme pain or distress. Physicians and surgeons must treat patients and their families with understanding.

Detail oriented. To ensure that patients receive appropriate treatment, including medication, physicians and surgeons must be precise in monitoring them and recording information related to their care.

Dexterity. Physicians and surgeons must be agile and sure handed, especially when working with extremely sharp medical instruments.

Leadership skills. Physicians and surgeons must coordinate with a team of other healthcare workers to manage patient care or direct medical procedures.    

Organizational skills. Good recordkeeping and other administrative skills are critical for physicians and surgeons in both medical and business settings.

Patience. Physicians and surgeons must remain calm and tolerant when working with patients who need special attention, such as those who fear or ignore medical treatment.

Physical stamina. Physicians and surgeons may spend many hours on their feet, including walking between patient visits or procedures. Surgeons may spend a great deal of time bending over patients during surgery.

Problem-solving skills. Physicians and surgeons need to evaluate patients’ symptoms to determine appropriate treatment. In some situations, such as emergencies, they may need to analyze and resolve crises quickly.

Pay About this section

Physicians and Surgeons

Median annual wages, May 2019

Physicians and surgeons

This wage is equal to or greater than $208,000 per year.

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$82,380

Total, all occupations

$39,810

 

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:

Anesthesiologists $261,730
Surgeons 252,040
Obstetricians and gynecologists 233,610
Psychiatrists 220,430
Family and general practitioners 213,270
Physicians and surgeons, all other 203,450
Internists, general 201,440
Pediatricians, general 184,410

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.

Job Outlook About this section

Physicians and Surgeons

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

10%

Total, all occupations

4%

Physicians and surgeons

4%

 

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.

Demand for most types of physicians and surgeons is expected to increase despite factors that can temper growth. New technologies, such as for remote monitoring, are expected to allow physicians to treat more patients in the same amount of time. If adopted, these technologies may reduce the number of physicians needed to complete the same tasks. In addition, physician assistants and nurse practitioners can do many of the routine duties of physicians and may be used to reduce costs at hospitals and doctor’s offices.

Demand for physicians’ services is sensitive to changes in healthcare reimbursement policies. Consumers may seek fewer physician services if changes to health coverage result in higher out-of-pocket costs for them.

Job Prospects

About 23,300 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.

Employment projections data for physicians and surgeons, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physicians and surgeons

752,400 779,700 4 27,300

Anesthesiologists

29-1211 33,800 34,000 0 200 Get data

Family medicine physicians

29-1215 119,300 126,600 6 7,300 Get data

General internal medicine physicians

29-1216 49,500 49,200 -1 -300 Get data

Obstetricians and gynecologists

29-1218 20,300 20,100 -1 -300 Get data

Pediatricians, general

29-1221 32,500 32,000 -2 -500 Get data

Psychiatrists

29-1223 27,900 31,300 12 3,300 Get data

Physicians, all other; and ophthalmologists, except pediatric

29-1228 429,500 447,900 4 18,500 Get data

Surgeons, except ophthalmologists

29-1248 39,600 38,800 -2 -900 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about physicians and surgeons, visit

American Medical Association

American Osteopathic Association

For more information about various medical specialties, visit

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Board of Medical Specialties

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

American College of Physicians

American College of Surgeons

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

Association of American Medical Colleges

American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine

For information about licensing, visit

Federation of State Medical Boards

National Board of Medical Examiners

National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners

United States Medical Licensing Examination

CareerOneStop

For a career video on allergists and immunologists, visit

Allergists and Immunologists

For a career video on anesthesiologists, visit

Anesthesiologists

For a career on family medicine physicians, visit

Family Medicine Physicians

For a career video on general internal medicine physicians, visit

General Internal Medicine Physicians

For a career video on obstetricians and gynecologists, visit

Obstetricians and Gynecologists

For a career video on orthopedic surgeons, visit

Orthopedic Surgeons, except Pediatric

For a career video on pediatricians, visit

Pediatricians, General

O*NET

Allergists and Immunologists

Anesthesiologists

Dermatologists

Family and General Practitioners

Hospitalists

Internists, General

Neurologists

Nuclear Medicine Physicians

Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Ophthalmologists

Pathologists

Pediatricians, General

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physicians

Physicians and Surgeons, All Other

Preventive Medicine Physicians

Psychiatrists

Radiologists

Sports Medicine Physicians

Surgeons

Urologists

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