What Is an Orthopedic Doctor? Key Roles and Duties

Bringing an orthopedic doctor onto a medical team can help improve the quality of care for patients. Their expertise helps people of all ages and abilities reduce pain and discomfort through preventive and curative care. Browse this guide to better understand the duties, skills and qualifications of an orthopedic doctor.


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What is an orthopedic doctor?

Orthopedic doctors, also known as medical orthopedists, are physicians who specialize in treating muscles, joints and bones. They often focus on a particular area of orthopedic medicine or part of the body. Orthopedic doctors frequently work with patients who experience chronic pain or are recovering from an injury. They can perform operations to re-set bones and repair soft tissue or use non-invasive methods to improve range of motion and decrease pain for patients.


Duties of an orthopedic doctor

Orthopedic doctors regularly work with people with degenerative diseases, birth defects, sports injuries and other forms of physical trauma. The job description for an orthopedic surgeon can vary based on their specialty. Here are some common duties and responsibilities for orthopedic doctors:

  • Ordering tests
  • Diagnosing patients
  • Prescribing medication
  • Collaborating with physical therapists
  • Recording patient progress and medical history
  • Setting broken bones
  • Supervising medical staff
  • Providing post-operative care

Orthopedic doctors should maintain an up-to-date knowledge of the orthopedic field so they can provide specialized advice to patients. They can work in a sub-specialty such as spine surgery, sports medicine or pediatric orthopedics. Some orthopedic doctors also teach medical students or perform academic and scientific research.


Some orthopedic doctors pursue additional training to become orthopedic surgeons, who perform a range of invasive and non-invasive procedures on patients. In an operating room environment, orthopedic surgeons have additional responsibilities and duties such as:

  • Explaining surgical procedures to patients
  • Working with anesthesiologists to keep patients sedated
  • Directing surgical interns
  • Locating and removing bone tumors
  • Using arthroscopy to diagnose joint pain

Common procedures that orthopedic surgeons perform include:

  • Joint replacement
  • Joint reconstruction
  • Bone grafting
  • Reconnecting nerves
  • Spinal disk replacement
  • Repairing torn ligaments and tendons

Related: How to Write a Doctor Job Description


Work environment for orthopedic doctors

Orthopedic doctors can work in a range of work environments depending on their specialty. They can open their own medical or surgical practice, work at an established orthopedic doctor’s office or practice in a hospital. Practicing orthopedic doctors spend a significant amount of time in the clinic seeing patients or in the operating room. They usually work in a fast-paced environment with long shifts and may be on call for days at a time depending on their workplace. Some surgeries can last for several hours, requiring orthopedic surgeons to maintain focus for a long period of time in a high-stress environment.


Orthopedic doctors can also spend time teaching in a classroom, giving lectures to medical students and observing orthopedic interns in the field. Some orthopedic specialists split their time between educating others and practicing medicine with patients, while others exclusively perform research and teach once they gain enough field experience.


Qualifications for orthopedic doctors

To practice orthopedic medicine, candidates need to have specialized education and extensive knowledge of the musculoskeletal system. Orthopedic doctors participate in regular ongoing education and re-certification to ensure that they meet modern standards for medical care. Here’s an overview of the typical education, certifications and skills requirements:



Orthopedic doctors usually begin their education with a bachelor’s degree in a related field like chemistry, biology or pre-medicine. Then they spend four years in medical school taking classes to gain general knowledge in the medical field and develop practical skills through clinical rotations. Next, candidates should complete a two-year residency in orthopedic medicine or a five-year residency in orthopedic surgery. Many orthopedic surgeons seek out a specialized fellowship where they can develop surgical techniques or learn a specialty such as pediatric orthopedics.



Orthopedic doctors must have state licensing to practice medicine. Medical school graduates can take their certification tests after they gain experience working in a clinic, hospital or surgery center. They need to pass three written tests to confirm their expertise as part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Aspiring orthopedic doctors also undergo a peer review and oral exam where they respond to questions and scenarios from board-certified orthopedic experts.


Orthopedic surgeons need additional certification through the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery which they are required to renew every ten years. Re-certification requires surgeons to take 200 CME (continued medical education) credits in orthopedic-specific courses, 200 general CME hours and multiple medical ethics courses.



Successful orthopedic surgeons may communicate with patients, collaborate with a medical team and execute medical procedures with accuracy and precision. They should typically have both technical skills and soft skills to provide the best level of care to patients. Some of the important skills to look for when hiring a quality orthopedic doctor are:

  • Patience and a good bedside manner
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving abilities
  • Knowledge of orthopedic medical instruments
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Ability to multitask and focus

 Related: 5 Doctor Interview Questions and Answers 


Frequently asked questions about orthopedic doctors


What education is required to become an orthopedic doctor?

Orthopedic doctors can earn either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. More experienced orthopedists may also pursue a Ph.D. or post-doctoral certificate in a related field, especially if they plan to teach medical students or pursue scientific research.


Does an orthopedic doctor perform surgery?

Not all orthopedic doctors perform surgery. Some only offer non-invasive procedures, others exclusively perform surgery and some orthopedic doctors use a variety of methods. Any orthopedic doctor who wants to perform surgery needs to complete a surgical residency to refine their skills.


How competitive is orthopedic medicine?

Orthopedic medicine is a competitive field, especially for surgical orthopedists, and is expected to grow faster than average, according to the BLS. There is high demand for orthopedic doctors and also a high number of interested applicants for orthopedic residencies.

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