Physicians and Surgeons

There are approximately 675,000 physicians and surgeons in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate a 22% growth of the profession in the next decade; this is considerably better than average.
Most medical schools are very competitive and require a four-year undergraduate degree. Medical school itself typically lasts four years, followed by residency and internship, which adds anywhere from three to eight years. However, this profession is highly rewarded, both in terms of personal satisfaction and financially.


Diagnosing disease and prescribing medication and other treatments are the primary responsibilities of physicians; surgeons do these things but perform surgery as well. There are two kinds of doctoral degrees, an M.D. (Medical Doctor) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Both degree types take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illness and disorders based upon personal knowledge and experience in combination with the results of diagnostic tests. Doctors of osteopathy take a more holistic approach than traditional medical doctors. Their work emphasizes the importance of preventative care, including diet, and focuses on the musculoskeletal system. Approximately 50% of osteopaths practice general internal, family, or pediatric medicine.
There are many specialties physicians can focus on. Among them are family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, anesthesiology, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry.

Using a combination of drugs and vigilant monitoring, anesthesiologists control a patient’s heart rate, breathing, temperature, and blood pressure while surgery is being performed, as well as work with patients who suffer from chronic pain.

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Family and general physicians fill the traditional role of family doctor. They have a wide range of responsibilities, among them diagnosing and treating contagious disease such as flu or non-contagious conditions like allergies or sinus infections and setting broken bones. If they suspect a specific disease, for example cancer or kidney disease, they will refer patients to the appropriate specialist. In terms of patient base, family medicine is very stable in that patients tend to remain with their primary care physician for years.
General internists, many of whom are also primary care physicians, manage problems with internal organs. Like family doctors, they diagnose, prescribe medication, and refer patients as needed.
Children from infancy through young adulthood are treated by pediatricians. These doctors specialize in illnesses and disorders that are most likely to emerge in early life. They treat contagious disease, chronic disorders, minor injuries, and give vaccinations. They also order diagnostic tests and prescribe medication.
Women’s health is the focus of obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs). They provide both wide-ranging medical care and care specific to the reproductive system, including pregnancy. They diagnose and treat breast, uterine, and cervical cancer, urinary tract infections, and problems caused by hormonal imbalance. As well, they are trained in childbirth, following patients from early pregnancy through postnatal care.
Problems involving mental illnesses are in the realm of psychiatry. Combining psychoanalysis, therapy or counseling, medication and, if necessary, hospitalization, they provide help and support for psycho-social imbalances, perceptive and cognitive issues, and chemical imbalance.

Surgeons operate while the patient is anesthetized. They may perform surgery to remove a tumor or benign growth, to repair a deformity, or to treat an injury. Some surgeons specialize in a particular type of surgery, such as orthopedic, neurological, plastic, or cardiovascular surgery.
Physicians may work in private practices, clinics, or hospitals. Group practice allows medical teams to share patient care. Work environments are usually clean, organized, brightly lit, and well ventilated. Few doctors are able to keep to a strict and limited work schedule. Many work a minimum of 50 hours in a week. If a doctor is on call, she is available to speak with patients or handle medical emergencies.

All states and territories, as well as the District of Columbia, require physicians be licensed. Before entering medical school, undergraduate work requires biology, math, physics, chemistry, and the humanities. There are approximately 130 medical schools that have been nationally accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). The roughly 25 Doctor of Osteopathy schools are accredited by the American Osteopathic Association. Physicians and surgeons are also required to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Doctors with licenses in one state can often get reciprocity to practice in another; however, this depends upon the state. Those trained in foreign medical schools must complete a residency and pass the examination before obtaining a license to practice.

The first two years of medical school are spent primarily in classroom and laboratory study of medical ethics and law, anatomy, pathology, biochemistry, psychology, physiology, pharmacology, and microbiology. For the next two years, students are supervised by experienced doctors as they work with patients. They are rotated through pediatrics, family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, and psychiatry in order to obtain a range of experiences. After graduation, physicians become interns, working for pay and on-the-job experience.
Median salary for primary care physicians is under $190,000, while for specialists is around $340,000. To a considerable degree a number of factors contribute to actual salaries, including years of experience, location, number of specialties, and other factors.