Generally speaking, the job of physicians is to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, usually as part of a team that includes other healthcare staff like registered nurses, physician assistants, medical records clerks,and medical laboratory technicians.
As part of their work, doctors examine people who are in need of medical care, take the patient’s medical history, and then have diagnostic tests done if needed to find the cause of the problem. After reviewing the test results, identifying any abnormalities and updating the patient’s records, physicians may then prescribe medications or recommend other treatments like physical therapy that are designed to cure or manage the patient’s medical condition.
Doctors are also able to answer any questions a patient may have about their health issues, and may advise patients about diet, hygiene, and preventive measures that can be used to improve or maintain their health as well.
Physicians licensed to practice in the US may have either an M.D. (Medical Doctor) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree. The main difference is that D.O.s are trained to place additional emphasis on whole-person patient care like preventive medicine and holistic treatments, in addition to using drugs and surgery like M.D.s do. However, both types of doctor are capable of treating diseases and injuries, so which kind of doctor you prefer to use is a personal decision on your part.
Within the medical field there are number of areas in which physicians can specialize. Some of the most common kinds of specialists include:
Anesthesiologists are the doctors who in charge of administering anesthesia during medical procedures like operations. While many of them work in an operating room during surgeries, they can also be found in the labor and delivery rooms and in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Anesthesiologists work with other physicians to decide on the best treatment for a patient before and after a surgical procedure. And any time that anesthesia is being used, these doctors monitor patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and breathing so that they can carefully adjust the amount of anesthetic as needed.
Family physicians, also known as general physicians, are usually the doctors that most people call when they notice a health problem, or when they just need an annual physical. These doctors may find themselves treating everything from scraped knees to coughs and colds to broken bones to constipation or heartburn. If needed, family doctors refer patients with serious illnesses to hospitals or specialist physicians for additional healthcare.
Internists diagnose and treat illnesses of the stomach, liver, kidneys, digestive tract, and other internal organs. Usually they prescribe medications and recommend dietary changes as part of their treatment plan. If more complex care or surgery is required, internists generally refer patients to other specialists.
Pediatricians specialize in diagnosing and treating medical problems found in babies, children, teens, and young adults. General pediatricians administer vaccinations as well as treating childhood illnesses and minor injuries. Other pediatricians may focus on specific areas like pediatric surgery or treating serious chronic conditions like autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes that are usually found in young patients.
Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) specialize in pregnancy, childbirth and the female reproductive system in general. While they are best known for providing pre-natal care and delivering babies, OB/GYN/s also diagnose and treat breast cancer, hormonal disorders, cervical cancer, menopausal symptoms, and other women’s health issues.
Psychiatrists are responsible for diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. As part of their treatment plan, psychiatrists use a range of tools including personal counseling (psychotherapy) and psychoanalysis, as well as medication and hospitalization, if needed.
Surgeons use operations to treat injuries and diseases. Surgeons might correct physical deformities like a cleft palate, or repair bone and tissue after a car accident, or perform preventive surgeries like installing a pacemaker in a patient with a damaged heart. And within the general area of surgery, doctors can also choose to further specialize in subfields like plastic surgery, reconstructive surgery, neurosurgery, cardiovascular surgery, and orthopedic surgery.
Other types of physician specialists include allergists who treat hay fever and other allergic conditions, cardiologists who diagnose and treat heart problems, dermatologists who work with skin diseases including acne and rosacea, neurologists who treat spinal cord and brain health issues like shingles and Alzheimer’s disease, oncologists who work with cancer patients, and many others.
Training to be a Doctor
Becoming a physician is extremely demanding and can take up to 16 years when you add up 4 years in college as an undergraduate, then 4 years of medical school, followed by internships and residencies that can last from 3 to 8 years depending on the medical specialization. And of course, the cost of all of this education can be prohibitive as well in some cases.
Getting into medical school is itself a very difficult process. In order to apply, you should have a bachelor’s degree, and some applicants have advanced degrees as well. Although there isn’t any one particular undergraduate major that will give you an edge, you should be sure to take courses in biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, as well as English and other humanities and social sciences to give yourself a broad educational background.
And if possible, make time to do volunteer work or summer jobs at clinics or hospitals during your high school and college years to gain some experience in a medical facility and make contacts who can help you with letters of recommendations for your medical school applications, as well as networking opportunities later in your career.
As part of the medical school application process, prospective physicians need to submit college transcripts along with their Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores, and several letters of recommendation. The admissions committee will also review other factors like the applicant’s leadership qualities and any participation in extracurricular activities. And most medical schools require in-person interviews which allow the admissions committee to judge other qualities like the applicant’s personality as well.
Students who are fortunate enough to be admitted to a medical school will find that they spend the first 2 years divided between laboratories and classrooms. During this time they will cover basic medical courses including anatomy, pharmacology, biochemistry, psychology, pathology, and immunology. They will also become familiar with important non-science topics like medical ethics, and the laws governing medicine. And they will begin learning practical skills, like taking medical histories, examining patients, and diagnosing injuries and illnesses.
During their last 2 years in medical school, student will spend their time in clinical settings, working to treat patients under the guidance of senior doctors. During this time, as they complete rotations through various medical specialties like internal medicine, pediatrics, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, and surgery, the students gain invaluable experience in diagnosing and treating a wide range of illnesses that will help them decide which area of medicine they will work in for their own career.
After completing their 4 years of medical school, new doctors usually enter a hospital residency program for further training in the specialty that they are interested in. These residencies can last up to 8 years, depending on the specialty.
Once the residency has been completed, a doctor can become licensed. While the requirements for licensure are set by the medical board in each state, usually the process requires that the licensee has graduated from an accredited medical school and completed their residency training, as well as passed several written and practical examinations. The standardized national license examination for examination M.D.s is the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) while D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).
In addition to becoming licensed, M.D.s and D.O.s can also get certified in their particular medical specialty. This is not required, but may give a doctor a competitive edge when applying for top-level jobs. Certification exams are given after the residency is completed and are overseen by either the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) depending on the doctor’s degree.
Although the route to becoming a physician is a long one, prospective doctors can find encouragement in knowing that jobs in this field are expected to grow by 24 percent for the decade from 2010 to 2020, which is much faster than the 14% predicted for all occupations. Much of this growth will be due to the fact that the US population is continuing to both grow and age, causing continued expansion of healthcare-related industries. In fact, many medical schools are already increasing their class sizes to be ready to meet this higher demand for physicians. The job outlook should be especially good for doctors who practice in areas that mainly treat the illnesses of older patients, like heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and stroke.
However, several caveats should be noted. First of all, newer and more effective technologies are continually being developed which enable doctors to treat patients more quickly, which decreases the number of physicians needed per unit number of patients. And the increasing use of nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to take on some routine jobs traditionally done by doctors is predicted to spread as healthcare facilities seek all means necessary to reduce their operating costs.