A physician could...
|Detect heart disease before it becomes fatal.||Provide medical care to people in impoverished countries.|
|Surgically repair and monitor the healing of a broken bone.||Investigate why a child's growth is not on track.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Physicians work to ease physical and mental suffering due to injury and disease. They diagnose medical conditions and then prescribe or administer appropriate treatments. Physicians also seek to prevent medical problems in their patients by advising preventative care. Ultimately, physicians try to help people live and feel better at every age.|
|Key Requirements||Good physical and emotional stamina, focus, empathy, calm during emergencies, outstanding communication skills, and enjoy interacting with people|
|Minimum Degree||Professional degree (Doctor of Medicine, MD)|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, English; if available, computer science, statistics, physiology, biomedical science|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Average (7% to 13%)|
Training, Other Qualifications
The common path to practicing as a physician requires 8 years of education beyond high school and 3-8 additional years of internship and residency. All states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories license physicians.
Education and Training
Formal education and training requirements for physicians are among the most demanding of any occupation—4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, and 3-8 years of internship and residency, depending on the specialty selected. A few medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last 6 years, rather than the customary 8 years.
Premedical students must complete undergraduate work in physics, biology, mathematics, English, and inorganic and organic chemistry. Students also take courses in the humanities and the social sciences. Some students volunteer at local hospitals or clinics to gain practical experience in the health professions.
The minimum educational requirement for entry into medical school is 3 years of college; most applicants, however, have at least a bachelor's degree, and many have advanced degrees. There are 146 medical schools in the United States—126 teach allopathic medicine and award a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree; 20 teach osteopathic medicine and award the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree.
Acceptance to medical school is highly competitive. Applicants must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test, and letters of recommendation. Schools also consider an applicant's character, personality, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities. Most schools require an interview with members of the admissions committee.
Students spend most of the first 2 years of medical school in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and laws governing medicine. They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses. During their last 2 years, students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics, learning acute, chronic, preventive, and rehabilitative care. Through rotations in internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery, they gain experience in the diagnosis and treatment of illness.
Following medical school, almost all M.D.s enter a residency—graduate medical education in a specialty that takes the form of paid on-the-job training, usually in a hospital. Most D.O.s serve a 12-month rotating internship after graduation and before entering a residency, which may last 2-6 years.
A physician's training is costly. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2004 more than 80 percent of medical school graduates were in debt for educational expenses.
People who wish to become physicians must have a desire to serve patients, be self-motivated, and be able to survive the pressures and long hours of medical education and practice. Physicians also must have a good bedside manner, emotional stability, and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. Prospective physicians must be willing to study throughout their career to keep up with medical advances.
Nature of the Work
Physicians and surgeons diagnose illnesses and prescribe and administer treatment for people suffering from injury or disease. Physicians examine patients, obtain medical histories, and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive health care.
There are two types of physicians: M.D.—Doctor of Medicine—and D.O.—Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. M.D.s are also known as allopathic physicians. While both M.D.s and D.O.'s may use all accepted methods of treatment, including drugs and surgery, D.O.'s place special emphasis on the body's musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine, and holistic patient care. D.O.'s are most likely to be primary care specialists, although they can be found in all specialties. About half of D.O.'s practice general or family medicine, general internal medicine, or general pediatrics.
Physicians work in one or more of several specialties, including, but not limited to, anesthesiology, family and general medicine, general internal medicine, general pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, and surgery.
Anesthesiologists focus on the care of surgical patients and pain relief. Like other physicians, they evaluate and treat patients and direct the efforts of their staffs. Through continual monitoring and assessment, these critical care specialists are responsible for maintenance of the patient's vital life functions—heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, breathing—during surgery. They also work outside of the operating room, providing pain relief in the intensive care unit, during labor and delivery, and for those who suffer from chronic pain. Anesthesiologists confer with other physicians and surgeons about appropriate treatments and procedures before, during, and after operations.
Family and general practitioners often provide the first point of contact for people seeking health care, by acting as the traditional family doctor. They assess and treat a wide range of conditions, from sinus and respiratory infections to broken bones. Family and general practitioners typically have a base of regular, long-term patients. These doctors refer patients with more serious conditions to specialists or other health care facilities for more intensive care.
General internists diagnose and provide nonsurgical treatment for a wide 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. Like general practitioners, general internists commonly act as primary care specialists. They treat patients referred from other specialists, and, in turn they refer patients to other specialists when more complex care is required.
General pediatricians care for the health of infants, children, teenagers, and young adults. They specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of ailments specific to young people and track patients' growth to adulthood. Like most physicians, pediatricians work with different health care workers, such as nurses and other physicians, to assess and treat children with various ailments. Most of the work of pediatricians involves treating day-to-day illnesses—minor injuries, infectious diseases, and immunizations—that are common to children, much as a general practitioner treats adults. Some pediatricians specialize in pediatric surgery or serious medical conditions, such as autoimmune disorders or serious chronic ailments.
Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) specialize in women's health. They are responsible for women's general medical care, and they also provide care related to pregnancy and the reproductive system. Like general practitioners, OB/GYNs attempt to prevent, diagnose, and treat general health problems, but they focus on ailments specific to the female anatomy, such as cancers of the breast or cervix, urinary tract and pelvic disorders, and hormonal disorders. OB/GYNs also specialize in childbirth, treating and counseling women throughout their pregnancy, from giving prenatal diagnoses to assisting with delivery and providing postpartum care.
Psychiatrists are the primary caregivers in the area of mental health. They assess and treat mental illnesses through a combination of 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, the exploration of their past experiences, or group and family therapy sessions. Psychoanalysis involves long-term psychotherapy and counseling for patients. In many cases, medications are administered to correct chemical imbalances that cause emotional problems. Psychiatrists also may administer electroconvulsive therapy to those of their patients who do not respond to, or who cannot take, medications.
Surgeons specialize in the treatment of injury, disease, and deformity through operations. Using a variety of instruments, and with patients under anesthesia, a surgeon corrects physical deformities, repairs bone and tissue after injuries, or performs preventive surgeries on patients with debilitating diseases or disorders. Although a large number perform general surgery, many surgeons choose to specialize in a specific area. One of the most prevalent specialties is orthopedic surgery: the treatment of the musculoskeletal system. Others include neurological surgery (treatment of the brain and nervous system), cardiovascular surgery, otolaryngology (treatment of the ear, nose, and throat), and plastic or reconstructive surgery. Like other physicians, surgeons also examine patients, perform and interpret diagnostic tests, and counsel patients on preventive health care.
Other physicians and surgeons work in a number of other medical and surgical specialists, including allergists, cardiologists, dermatologists, emergency physicians, gastroenterologists, ophthalmologists, pathologists, and radiologists.
Many physicians—primarily general and family practitioners, general internists, pediatricians, OB/GYNs, and psychiatrists—work in small private offices or clinics, often assisted by a small staff of nurses and other administrative personnel. Increasingly, physicians are practicing in groups or health care organizations that provide backup coverage and allow for more time off. Physicians in a group practice or health care organization often work as part of a team that coordinates care for a number of patients; they are less independent than the solo practitioners of the past. Surgeons and anesthesiologists usually work in well-lit, sterile environments while performing surgery, and often stand for long periods. Most work in hospitals or in surgical outpatient centers.
Many physicians and surgeons work long, irregular hours. Over one-third of full-time physicians and surgeons worked 60 hours or more a week in 2006. Only 8 percent of all physicians and surgeons worked part-time, compared with 15 percent for all occupations. Physicians and surgeons must travel frequently between office and hospital to care for their patients. While on call, a physician will deal with many patients' concerns over the phone and make emergency visits to hospitals or nursing homes.
On the Job
- Treat internal disorders, such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and problems of the lung, brain, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract.
- Analyze records, reports, test results, or examination information to diagnose medical condition of patient.
- Prescribe or administer medication, therapy, and other specialized medical care to treat or prevent illness, disease, or injury.
- Provide and manage long-term, comprehensive medical care, including diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of diseases, for adult patients in an office or hospital.
- Manage and treat common health problems, such as infections, influenza and pneumonia, as well as serious, chronic, and complex illnesses, in adolescents, adults, and the elderly.
- Monitor patients' conditions and progress and reevaluate treatments as necessary.
- Collect, record, and maintain patient information, such as medical history, reports, and examination results.
- Make diagnoses when different illnesses occur together or in situations where the diagnosis may be obscure.
- Explain procedures and discuss test results or prescribed treatments with patients.
- Advise patients and community members concerning diet, activity, hygiene, and disease prevention.
- Refer patient to medical specialist or other practitioner when necessary.
- Immunize patients to protect them from preventable diseases.
- Advise surgeon of a patient's risk status and recommend appropriate intervention to minimize risk.
- Direct and coordinate activities of nurses, students, assistants, specialists, therapists, and other medical staff.
- Provide consulting services to other doctors caring for patients with special or difficult problems.
- Operate on patients to remove, repair, or improve functioning of diseased or injured body parts and systems.
- Plan, implement, or administer health programs in hospitals, businesses, or communities for prevention and treatment of injuries or illnesses.
- Conduct research to develop or test medications, treatments, or procedures to prevent or control disease or injury.
- Prepare government or organizational reports on birth, death, and disease statistics, workforce evaluations, or the medical status of individuals.
Companies That Hire Physicians
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Do you have a specific question about a career as a Physician that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- American Medical Association: www.ama-assn.org
- Association of American Medical Colleges: www.aamc.org/students
- O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017.
- Wired Science. (2009, February 10). Careers in Science: Team Physician. Retrieved March 31, 2014.
- Harvard Medical School, YouTube (2013, May 2). Primary Care in Practice: An internist's perspective. Retrieved March 6, 2019.
- Greene, A. (2002, July 30). On Being A Physician: A Day In The Life. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
- Sentara Healthcare. (2008, August 8). Day in the life of Dr. Terryl Times, general surgeon. Retrieved December 4, 2009.
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