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 also are 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Work environment. 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-lighted, sterile environments while performing surgery and often
stand for long periods. Most work in hospitals or in surgical outpatient
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.
Earnings of physicians and surgeons are among the highest of any
occupation. The Medical Group Management Association’s Physician Compensation
and Production Survey, reports that median total compensation for physicians in
2005 varied by specialty, as shown in table 2. Total compensation for physicians
reflects the amount reported as direct compensation for tax purposes, plus all
voluntary salary reductions. Salary, bonus and incentive payments, research
stipends, honoraria, and distribution of profits were included in total
Median compensation for physicians,
Less than two years in specialty
Over one year in specialty
Internal medicine: General
Family practice (without obstetrics)
Self-employed physicians—those who own or are
part owners of their medical practice—generally have higher median incomes than
salaried physicians. Earnings vary according to number of years in practice,
geographic region, hours worked, skill, personality, and professional
reputation. Self-employed physicians and surgeons must provide for their own
health insurance and retirement.