What Is a Physician? Your Guide To Physician Careers

By Indeed Editorial Team

March 8, 2021

Being a physician is a rewarding career that gives you the chance to work in a field that directly helps people. There are many different types of specialty physicians, which presents several rewarding career options for you. In this article, we discuss the types of career paths you can choose as a physician and how to become one.

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What is a physician?

A physician is a person who is qualified to practice medicine. A physician is also called a doctor or medical practitioner and cares for patients in a variety of ways. Different types of physicians have specialties and subspecialties, but all doctors are concerned with maintaining and restoring the health of patients through diagnosis and treatment. A physician might work in a hospital, outpatient center, inpatient center or their own practice.

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Types of physicians

There are a variety of physicians who possess specialties in certain aspects of medicine and health care. While every physician's primary responsibility is the well-being of their patients, each one has its own specialty and type of work that they perform. Here are some of the most popular types of physicians and what each of them specializes in:

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Primary care physician

A primary care physician is the first doctor you usually meet when you receive medical care. Before being referred to a specialist, a primary care physician will diagnose patients based on their symptoms and clinical history. Some responsibilities include health maintenance, disease prevention and diagnosis and treatment of illness and disease. A primary care physician can help with many medical concerns before they turn into issues, but can also always refer a patient to a specialist when needed. After a three-year residency, a primary care physician has many opportunities to subspecialize in fields like pediatrics, geriatrics, internal medicine and more.

Family physician

Similar to a primary care physician, a family physician is a doctor who diagnoses and treats patients based on symptoms and clinical history. A family physician is also qualified to treat every member of the family. A family physician handles the diagnosis and prevention of general medical conditions. They implement diagnostic testing, including cholesterol testing for the prevention of high cholesterol, blood sugar testing for prevention of diabetes, weight-loss counseling for prevention of obesity and smoking cessation for a lowered risk of cancer and disease. After a residency that could last between three to seven years, a family physician can decide to subspecialize in adolescent medicine, geriatric medicine and hospice medicine, among others.

Pediatrician

A pediatrician is a doctor who cares for the well-being of children. Children require special care, and it is a pediatrician's job to care for the physical and mental health concerns of children. Pediatricians may act as a child's primary care physician or may specialize in other fields specific to children. Preventative care in the form of health counseling and vaccines is a primary concern for pediatricians, but they can also diagnose and acute and chronic illnesses and diseases. After a three-year residency, a pediatrician can choose to subspecialize in fields like pediatric surgery, pediatric pulmonology, pediatric cardiology and more.

Surgeon

General surgery is a specialty that commonly requires a longer residency program. Surgeons diagnose and treat patients who have a disease or acute illness with surgery. During their residency, surgeons will perform minimally-invasive procedures while learning more invasive surgeries as they progress. After a surgeon completes their residency, they can subspecialize in a specific surgery, such as organ transplantation or vascular surgery.

General internist

A general internist is a primary care physician who treats adult patients in inpatient and outpatient settings. After a three-year residency, these types of physicians may continue their practice as internists or continue to specialize. General internists can diagnose and treat a variety of illnesses and conditions with medications and counsel. After completing a residency program, a general internist can decide to subspecialize as an immunologist, oncologist, nephrologist, rheumatologist, cardiologist and pulmonologist, among others.

Obstetrician-gynecologist

An obstetrician-gynecologist is a doctor who cares for the reproductive needs of women, including pregnancy and child delivery. This physician specialty works both medically and surgically. After a four-year residency, an obstetrician-gynecologist can specialize in maternal-fetal medicine, fertility, reproductive endocrinology and more.

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a physician who diagnoses and treats mental and behavioral disorders. Unlike a psychologist, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. After the completion of a four-year residency, a psychiatrist can specialize in adolescent psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and more.

Radiologist

A radiologist is a physician who commonly diagnoses injuries, illnesses, disease and cancer with the use of ultrasounds, MRIs and x-rays. A radiologist will complete a one-year internship and a four-year residency before specializing in fields such as nuclear radiology, pediatric radiology, vascular radiology and more.

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a specialist physician who diagnoses and treats diseases of the eyes. An ophthalmologist is an eye surgeon who can perform surgeries on corneas and cataracts. An ophthalmology resident will complete a one-year internship and three years of residency before having the choice of pursuing a subspecialty like neuro-ophthalmology, cataracts and refractive surgery, ophthalmic pathology and ocular oncology, among others.

Anesthesiologist

An anesthesiologist is a specialist physician who administers sedation or anesthetics during surgical procedures. They can also maintain airway management and life support. After four years of residency, an anesthesiologist can subspecialize in fields such as critical care anesthesia, orthopedic anesthesia, cardiothoracic anesthesia and obstetric anesthesia.

Pathologist

A pathologist is a specialist physician who studies the development of diseases. These doctors diagnose diseases by examining tissues, cells and body fluids. Pathologists can perform autopsies to determine the cause of death, but can also determine if an organ transplant is necessary. After the successful completion of a residency program, a pathologist can specialize in fields such as forensic pathology, anatomical pathology and clinical pathology.

Dermatologist

A dermatologist is a physician who diagnoses and treats disorders relating to the skin, hair and nails. Dermatologists can perform biopsies and other surgical procedures. A dermatologist can also diagnose diseases such as tumors, infectious diseases, skin cancer and more. After an average of a three-year residency, a dermatologist can specialize in fields such as pediatric dermatology, cosmetic dermatology, dermatopathology and more.

How to become a physician

Here are the steps to becoming a physician, before potential specialty:

1. Achieve a bachelor's degree

The first step in your journey to becoming a physician is attending a college or university and achieving a bachelor's degree. A degree related to science and mathematics can help you pass future tests, and volunteering in hospitals or healthcare institutions can provide you with experience before medical school.

2. Pass the Medical College Admissions Test

After you receive your bachelor's degree, the next step to becoming a physician is getting into medical school. To get into medical school, you must pass the Medical College Admissions Test. The MCAT measures you on a variety of scientific knowledge, problem-solving and verbal reasoning skills.

3. Obtain a medical degree

Good grades and a passing MCAT score can help get you into medical school. You must spend four years in medical school, which consists of coursework, more major tests and clinical experiences that can help you determine what specialty or residency you might want to pursue. You obtain your medical degree when you graduate from medical school.

4. Complete a residency program

Depending on what residency or specialty you are considering, you might spend your first year as an intern at a hospital before your residency starts. Residency programs allow aspiring physicians to develop their skills in the specialty of their choice while working with patients. Residencies can last anywhere from two to seven years.

5. Attain a medical license

Every state requires aspiring physicians to attain a state medical license before practicing medicine. To receive your medical license, you must pass an exam, among other requirements, that vary by state. For M.D.s, passing the USMLE examination is required. If you plan to become a D.O., you will need to pass the COMLEX-USA. After passing your required exam and getting approved by your state medical board, you will achieve your medical license and will be able to practice medicine.

6. Achieve certification

Those who achieve a medical license can apply for a job at a medical institution, hospital or other health care organization. Some continue working at the facility where they completed their residency program. If you want to specialize or subspecialize in a specific field, continuing education, training, evaluations and assessments are commonly required to receive certification in your specialty.

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