What Is a Physician? Key Roles and Duties

Physicians collaborate with other healthcare professionals to promote public health and provide treatment for a range of diseases, injuries and conditions. They’re an essential part of hospitals, doctors’ offices, home care businesses, clinics and other places that provide patient care. 


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What is a physician?

A physician is a medical professional who studies, diagnoses and treats illness, injuries and other ailments. They have knowledge of medical ethics, human anatomy, pharmacology and other specialties depending on their field. Physicians provide preventative care, detect developing health problems and give advice to help patients develop healthy habits. Physicians are also known as doctors and medical practitioners.

Related: Physician Job Description Examples


Physician job responsibilities

To provide quality care for patients, doctors have extensive medical knowledge and strong interpersonal skills. They communicate with patients, nurses, doctors and other members of a care team to explain the diagnosis, determine the best course of treatment and follow up on recovery. They oversee medical staff and stay current with medical practice standards and laws. The key duties of a physician are to:

  • Order tests and analyze their results.
  • Refer patients to specialists.
  • Create treatment plans.
  • Explain side effects of medications and treatment options.
  • Perform basic medical procedures.
  • Record medical history.
  • Identify symptoms and diagnose patients.
  • Provide advice for improving patient health.

When hiring a physician at a hospital or other healthcare provider, write interview questions that address the experience and skills needed to complete each of these responsibilities. 


Types of physicians

Physicians can choose to be general practitioners who provide basic medical care across several different areas, or they can specialize in a specific field. Specialties require additional schooling with specific coursework, internships and fellowships where they learn field-specific skills. Some of the common types of physicians are:



Anesthesiologists are physicians who study and practice pain management. They help patients with pain relief during and after medical procedures, collaborating with surgeons to keep the patient comfortable and sedated. Anesthesiologists monitor patient vital signs during surgery and adjust the amount of anesthetic to keep them stable. They also work in the intensive care unit, help people manage pain during birth and collaborate with other doctors to create safe recovery plans.



Doctors who work specifically with children, including teens and infants, are called pediatricians. Pediatricians study diseases, injuries and other medical conditions that frequently affect young patients. They administer vaccinations on the appropriate schedule, treat infections and communicate with children to understand the cause of their symptoms. They can work for a family practice or specialize further and study pediatric surgery.



Psychiatrists are physicians who focus on mental health care and prevention. They study how mental illness can influence behavior, mood and physical health. Psychiatrists implement a variety of techniques to provide specialized patient care, including talk therapy, family counseling and prescribing psychiatric medications. They can diagnose mental illness, connect patients with other specialists and educate patients on how to manage their symptoms during treatment.



Surgeons are physicians who perform operations that repair tissue, insert medical devices, re-set bone, remove tumors or change the physical appearance of a patient. They examine patients, create a plan for surgery and respond to unexpected situations in the operating room. Surgeons can specialize even more to focus on a specific part of the body or organ system. Some of the sub-specialties for physicians interested in surgery are:

  • Plastic surgery
  • Cardiovascular surgery
  • Neurological surgery
  • Orthopedic surgery


Qualifications for physicians

Becoming a physician requires years of study and experience working with qualified medical doctors. To become a physician, candidates need years of formal education where they learn how to diagnose patients and provide quality care. They learn about the history of medicine, develop an in-depth understanding of symptoms and research diseases. Education requirements to become a physician may include:

  • Bachelor’s degree: Some medical schools require specific coursework to qualify for medical school, so majors like biology and pre-medicine are both popular among doctors.
  • Medical degree: Physicians must complete medical school, which usually takes four years.
  • Medical internship: After graduating medical school, physicians undergo a year of on-the-job training called a medical internship. Many physicians choose a specialty during their internship.
  • Residency: Most states require that physicians spend three to seven years completing a residency, a post-graduate training program where doctors practice medicine in their specialty under the supervision of experienced doctors.

After completing their residency, physicians can apply to become board certified and gain the license to practice medicine in their state. Some competitive fields in medicine require additional training through fellowships, where physicians can research cutting-edge cures and procedures. Teaching hospitals, for example, may have more rigorous qualifications for hiring physicians than local free clinics.

Read more: How to Hire a Physician


Frequently asked questions about physicians

Here are a few common questions about the job description and duties of a physician:


Is there a difference between a doctor and a physician?

Physicians and medical doctors both refer to a qualified healthcare provider who has completed medical school. The term doctor can also refer to any person who has a Ph.D. in their field.


What degree do you need to become a physician?

Physicians usually need a bachelor’s degree and one of two advanced medical degrees: Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). M.D.s focus on diagnosing and curing ailments, while D.O.s practice holistic medicine that focuses on a variety of factors in a patient’s life such as nutrition and environment.


Do physicians perform surgery?

Some physicians practice surgery, but not all physicians are qualified to operate. Surgeons are physicians who have completed a surgical internship and a surgical residency within their specialty. They study extensively and observe multiple surgeries before ever operating on a patient. They may also perform several co-surgeries with a more experienced physician until they have enough experience and proven success to practice alone.

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