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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 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.

Duties

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.

Work Environment About this section

Physicians and surgeons
Surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in a sterile environment and must follow protocol to maintain it during procedures.

Physicians and surgeons held about 761,700 jobs in 2021. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up physicians and surgeons was distributed as follows:

Physicians, all other 280,800
Family medicine physicians 112,200
General internal medicine physicians 63,700
Emergency medicine physicians 39,500
Pediatricians, general 36,800
Anesthesiologists 34,100
Radiologists 32,400
Surgeons, all other 30,700
Psychiatrists 27,900
Obstetricians and gynecologists 23,600
Cardiologists 20,300
Orthopedic surgeons, except pediatric 16,800
Physicians, pathologists 12,100
Ophthalmologists, except pediatric 12,000
Dermatologists 10,100
Neurologists 7,800
Pediatric surgeons 900

The largest employers of physicians and surgeons were as follows:

Offices of physicians 53%
Hospitals, state, local, and private 25
Self-employed workers 6
Federal government 5
Outpatient care centers 4

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.

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 9 years in internship and residency programs. Subspecialization includes additional training in a fellowship of 1 to 3 years.

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 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.

Training

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).

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 2021

Physicians and surgeons

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

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$81,270

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

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 2021 were as follows:

Cardiologists          $353,970
Anesthesiologists          331,190
Emergency medicine physicians          310,640
Orthopedic surgeons, except pediatric          306,220
Dermatologists          302,740
Radiologists          301,720
Surgeons, all other          297,800
Obstetricians and gynecologists          296,210
Pediatric surgeons          290,310
Ophthalmologists, except pediatric          270,090
Neurologists          267,660
Physicians, pathologists          267,180
Psychiatrists          249,760
General internal medicine physicians          242,190
Family medicine physicians          235,930
Physicians, all other          231,500
Pediatricians, general          198,420

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 2021-31

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

9%

Total, all occupations

5%

Physicians and surgeons

3%

 

Overall employment of physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 3 percent from 2021 to 2031, slower than the average for all occupations.

Despite limited employment growth, about 23,800 openings for physicians and surgeons are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Most 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

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, is 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 demand for psychiatrists.

As rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease increase, people will seek high levels of care that use the latest technologies, diagnostic tests, and therapies.

Employment projections data for physicians and surgeons, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Physicians and surgeons

761,700 783,100 3 21,400

Physicians

29-1210 701,300 720,700 3 19,400 Get data

Anesthesiologists

29-1211 34,100 34,500 1 400 Get data

Cardiologists

29-1212 20,300 20,900 3 600 Get data

Dermatologists

29-1213 10,100 10,400 3 300 Get data

Emergency medicine physicians

29-1214 39,500 40,800 3 1,300 Get data

Family medicine physicians

29-1215 112,200 115,900 3 3,700 Get data

General internal medicine physicians

29-1216 63,700 65,000 2 1,300 Get data

Neurologists

29-1217 7,800 8,000 3 200 Get data

Obstetricians and gynecologists

29-1218 23,600 24,000 2 400 Get data

Pediatricians, general

29-1221 36,800 37,200 1 400 Get data

Physicians, pathologists

29-1222 12,100 12,600 4 500 Get data

Psychiatrists

29-1223 27,900 30,300 9 2,400 Get data

Radiologists

29-1224 32,400 33,600 4 1,200 Get data

Physicians, all other

29-1229 280,800 287,500 2 6,700 Get data

Surgeons

29-1240 60,400 62,400 3 2,000 Get data

Ophthalmologists, except pediatric

29-1241 12,000 12,800 6 800 Get data

Orthopedic surgeons, except pediatric

29-1242 16,800 17,300 3 400 Get data

Pediatric surgeons

29-1243 900 900 2 0 Get data

Surgeons, all other

29-1249 30,700 31,500 3 800 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 Board of Physician 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

Cardiologists

Dermatologists

Emergency Medicine Physicians

Family Medicine Physicians

General Internal Medicine Physicians

Hospitalists

Neurologists

Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Ophthalmologists, Except Pediatric

Orthopedic Surgeons, Except Pediatric

Pediatric Surgeons

Pediatricians, General

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physicians

Physicians, All Other

Physicians, Pathologists

Preventive Medicine Physicians

Psychiatrists

Radiologists

Sports Medicine Physicians

Surgeons, All Other

Urologists

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