Physicians and surgeons diagnose, treat injuries, illnesses or diseases. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They 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. 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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