What Is a Doctor? Definition, Types and How To Become One
Updated March 10, 2023
A doctor is someone who is experienced and certified to practice medicine to help maintain or restore physical and mental health. A doctor is tasked with interacting with patients, diagnosing medical problems and successfully treating illness or injury. There are many specific areas in the field of medicine that students can study.
This article explains what a doctor does, a doctor's earning potential, where they can work and common types of doctors, how to become one and some FAQs.
What does a doctor do?
Doctors meet and talk with patients and caregivers to diagnose, manage and treat illnesses and injuries. Of course, specific duties will vary depending on the area of medicine you intend to practice, but many of the core duties are required of all doctors. Some of those duties may include:
Listening carefully to patients to gather information regarding symptoms
Performing diagnostics to determine the root problem
Reading and interpreting laboratory results
Prescribing medication; administering treatments
Ordering and/or performing procedures as needed
Providing follow-up care of patients or referring them to other providers as necessary
Working closely with physician assistants, nurses, EMTs, pharmacists and other health professionals to ensure the best possible care of their patients
Staying up-to-date on emerging medical technology and the latest field research
Practicing compassion, understanding and caring manners
Related: Browse Doctor Jobs
Average doctor salary
The salary range of a doctor will depend on your specialization, training and geographical location.
National average salary: $215,865 per year
Some salaries range from $155,175 to $303,413 per year.
Read more: What Is the Average Salary for a Doctor?
Where can a doctor work?
A doctor can work in any of several medical settings, such as private practices and hospitals as well as in teaching or medical research.
A large portion of doctors (approximately half) work primarily in hospitals, where they practice their specialized segment of medicine, including the following:
Cosmetic (reconstruction) surgery
Ear, neck and throat surgery
Oral and maxillofacial surgery
Thoracic and cardiothoracic surgery
These specializations are not exhaustive and contain many subsets of specialties. For example, an oncologist, or cancer doctor, can specialize in a certain kind of cancer, like lung, pancreatic, breast or they can choose to practice pediatric or geriatric oncology rather than just an overarching oncology specialization.
Related: Learn About Being a Surgeon
Private or clinical practice
Private practices or clinics also vary in the specializations their doctors practice.
The most common clinical specialization is a general practitioner. These doctors possess a wide specialty that involves treating patients of all ages for many different illnesses or injuries. When it's necessary and appropriate, they also provide referrals for patients to see specialists. This normally happens when the scope of the patient's ailment is outside of the GP's area of practice. Some of the common medical practices taking place in clinics or doctors' offices may include:
Nephrology (kidney specialist)
Surgery (many types of minor surgery can be performed in an outpatient situation)
Critical (urgent) care
Otolaryngology (ENT, or ear, nose and throat)
Immunology (allergy or autoimmune disease)
How to become a doctor
Doctors need to have extensive education (eight years, on average) and on-the-job training. They must be able to diagnose and treat illnesses, talk to patients and caretakers and collaborate with a variety of other medical professionals. Here are the most common steps to take if you want to become a doctor.
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
Many people focus on pre-medicine, exercise science, biology and other science programs as their major.
2. Take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
This is a standardized examination designed to help medical schools assess your knowledge, personality and other traits that they use to determine your suitability for admission into medical school.
3. Apply for medical school
You'll receive hands-on training to apply the concepts you learned in the classroom and practice working with a wide range of actual patients. You might work with clinical specialists like pediatricians, psychiatrists, geriatric medicine, surgical and internal medicine.
4. Earn a medical degree
For your degree to be considered valid, your school must be accredited by The American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic Accreditation or the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.
5. Complete a residency program
Once doctors graduate from medical school, they need to complete a one-year internship, during which time they work alongside licensed physicians to complete the required general medical training. Once the internship is complete, graduates must complete a residency of two to five years working in their chosen area of medicine.
6. Pass medical licensing exams
State medical license
A doctor is legally allowed to practice medicine once they earn a medical license. You must graduate from an accredited medical school, complete an internship and pass the state licensure exam. Each state has its own requirements for licensing, but they all require continuing education credits for renewal and extensive background checks.
These are national certifications that show a doctor is specially trained in a particular kind of medicine. These doctors become experts in their field by extensively training and passing a national exam.
Related: Physician Cover Letter
Frequently asked questions
Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about becoming and working as a doctor:
1. What skills are needed to become a doctor?
Doctors are required to have more than medical knowledge to succeed in their field. Some additional skills include:
Strong problem-solving skills
Medical training provides the technical knowledge to become a doctor, but the ability to deconstruct problems and implement that knowledge is a highly-tuned skill that comes with experience and working at it. Considering the fact that medical issues aren't always instantly obvious, doctors have to employ the creative side of their brain in tandem with their learned knowledge to try to find answers.
Effective decision-making skills
Patient care depends on the decisions made by doctors, so it's important that an aspiring doctor becomes accustomed to taking responsibility and making impossible decisions. From determining a low-risk treatment plan to making life-or-death decisions on the spot, a doctor needs to remain calm, confident and professional under pressure.
At some point, every doctor becomes the first person called when it comes to emergencies. Patients and colleagues depend on doctors for instructions, answers and reassurance. Additionally, more experienced doctors are typically paired with new doctors and medical students, so demonstrating leadership will be crucial.
Effective communication is a crucial part of an initial diagnosis. A doctor needs to ask the right questions, analyze patients' answers and clearly communicate to the patient what they think is going on with them and instruct them on actions to take or avoid during their recovery.
2. What are doctors' work hours like?
The hours a doctor works depends largely on their specialty, where they work, level of seniority and other factors. A general practitioner working in a private practice may work predictable 40- to 45-hour weeks, while a surgical resident in a hospital might work 24 or even 36 hours in a row, making for a 100-hour or so work week. The GP will generally work the standard hours of their office (generally 9-5 or similar) while the surgical resident can work overnight and through the next day, if needed.
Also to be taken into consideration is the doctor's specialized area of practice. Hospital doctors are generally more overworked than doctors working in a clinic or private practice. Clinics, however, tend to have weekend hours, while most private practices do not.
3. What are some other medical careers?
The field of medicine is vast, and there are countless capacities in which one can become involved. Here are a few examples of medical-related or adjacent careers:
Physician assistants provide support to doctors in their routine tasks, such as performing routine exams, updating patient charts, and working closely with other medical professionals to see the whole of a patient's medical history and current situation.
Registered nurse anesthetist
These specialists administer anesthesia to patients during medical procedures. They are responsible for making sure the patient is safely anesthetized, using the appropriate amount of medicine for patients to sleep during surgery.
Read more: Learn About Being a Nurse Anesthetist
Dentists manage the health of a patient's mouth and teeth. This is a critical job, as many whole-body diseases can be first detected in the mouth. The dentists are responsible for performing routine checks of a patient's mouth health.
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