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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 can be found 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 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. The following are examples of types of physicians and surgeons:

Anesthesiologists focus on the care of surgical patients and pain relief. They administer drugs (anesthetics) that reduce or eliminate the sensation of pain during an operation or another medical procedure. During surgery, they are responsible for adjusting the amount of anesthetic as needed, and monitoring the patient's heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and breathing. They also work outside of the operating room, providing pain relief for patients in the intensive care unit, for women in labor and delivery of babies, and for patients who suffer from chronic pain. Anesthesiologists work with other physicians and surgeons to decide on treatments and procedures before, during, and after surgery.

Family and general physicians assess and treat a range of conditions that occur in everyday life. These conditions include sinus and respiratory infections to broken bones. Family and general physicians typically have regular, long-term patients.

General internists diagnose and provide nonsurgical treatment for a range of problems that affect internal organ systems such as the stomach, kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. Internists use a variety of diagnostic techniques to treat patients through medication or hospitalization. They work mostly with adult patients.

General pediatricians provide care for infants, children, teenagers, and young adults. They specialize in diagnosing and treating problems specific to younger people. Most pediatricians treat common illnesses, minor injuries, and infectious diseases, and administer vaccinations. Some pediatricians specialize in pediatric surgery or serious medical conditions that commonly affect younger patients, such as autoimmune disorders or chronic ailments.

Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) provide care related to pregnancy, childbirth, and the female reproductive system. They treat and counsel women throughout their pregnancy and deliver babies. They also diagnose and treat health issues specific to women, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, hormonal disorders, and symptoms related to menopause.

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 regular discussions with patients about their problems. The psychiatrist helps them find solutions through changes in their behavioral patterns, explorations of their past experiences, or group and family therapy sessions. Psychoanalysis involves long-term psychotherapy and counseling for patients. Psychiatrists may prescribe medications to correct chemical imbalances that cause some mental illnesses.

Surgeons treat injuries, diseases, and deformities through operations. Using a variety of instruments, a surgeon corrects physical deformities, repairs bone and tissue after injuries, or performs preventive or elective surgeries on patients. Although a large number perform general surgery, many surgeons choose to specialize in a specific area. Specialties include orthopedic surgery (the treatment of the musculoskeletal system), neurological surgery (treatment of the brain and nervous system), cardiovascular surgery, and plastic or reconstructive surgery. Like other physicians, surgeons examine patients, perform and interpret diagnostic tests, and counsel patients on preventive healthcare. Some specialist physicians also perform surgery.

Physicians and surgeons may work in a number of other medical and surgical specialties and subspecialties. The following specialists are some of the most common examples:

  • Allergists (specialists in diagnosing and treating hay fever or other allergies)
  • Cardiologists (heart specialists)
  • Dermatologists (skin specialists)
  • Gastroenterologists (digestive system specialists)
  • Ophthalmologists (eye specialists)
  • Pathologists (specialists who study body tissue to see if it is normal or abnormal)
  • Radiologists (specialists who review and interpret x rays and other images and deliver radiation treatments for cancer and other illnesses)

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 may 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 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.

Work Schedules

Most physicians and surgeons work full time. Many physicians and surgeons work long, irregular, and overnight hours. Physicians and surgeons may travel between their offices and hospitals to care for their patients. While on call, a physician may need to address a patient’s concerns over the phone or make an emergency visit to a hospital or 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 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.

Education

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.

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, generally 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 certifying board including the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), or the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS).

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Physicians and surgeons need to be excellent communicators. They must communicate effectively with their patients and other healthcare support staff.

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

Detail oriented. Patients must receive appropriate treatment and medications. Physicians and surgeons must accurately monitor and record various pieces of information related to patient care.

Dexterity. Physicians and surgeons may work with very precise and sometimes sharp tools, and mistakes can have serious consequences.

Leadership skills. Physicians who work in their own practice must manage a staff of other professionals.

Organizational skills. Good recordkeeping and other organizational skills are critical in both medical and business settings.

Patience. Physicians and surgeons may work for long periods with patients who need special attention. Persons who fear medical treatment may require more patience.

Physical stamina. Physicians and surgeons should be comfortable lifting or turning disabled patients, or performing other physical tasks. Surgeons may spend a great deal of time bending over patients during surgery.

Problem-solving skills. Physicians and surgeons need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They need to do this quickly if a patient’s life is threatened.

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

Many physicians and surgeons work long, irregular, and overnight hours. Physicians and surgeons may travel between their offices and hospitals to care for their patients. While on call, a physician may need to address a patient’s concerns over the phone or make an emergency visit to a hospital or 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 improved information technologies or remote monitoring, are expected to allow physicians to treat more patients in the same amount of time. If adopted, new technologies can reduce the number of physicians who would be 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.

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

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