As career choices go, helping save and improve people's lives ranks pretty high. Doctors have the opportunity to make a large impact in their communities, and make a good living while they're doing it. If you've settled on a career as a physician, the next big question is which specialty you'll practice. Often that comes down to medicine vs. surgery. Gastroenterologists and general surgeons, for instance, treat many of the same conditions, but they do it differently.
If you opt for general surgery, you'll be working with the "none of the above" category of surgical care. Neurological, cardiothoracic, urologic and orthopedic surgeons each have their specialties, and you'll take care of everything else. In practice that means you'll do a lot of abdominal surgeries, breast surgeries, and minor surgeries of the skin, neck and veins. You can choose to remain a generalist and take all the surgeries that come your way, or you can specialize into areas such as oncology, vascular surgery or pediatric surgery. Either way, you'll have lots of variety in your professional life.
If you choose to become a gastroenterologist, you'll still spend a lot of your time treating patients' abdominal problems, but you'll do it from the outside. Gastroenterologists treat diseases and conditions that affect the digestive tract, including the esophagus, stomach, intestines and colon. This includes everything from chronic heartburn and constipation to life-threatening cancers or cirrhosis of the liver. You'll draw on your own diagnostic skills as well as lab tests and medical imaging to identify the cause of a patient's symptoms, and treat them through medications, lifestyle changes, and sometimes by referring them to surgeons.
The major difference between gastroenterologists and general surgeons is that gastroenterologists don't perform surgery. As a gastroenterologist, you'd be able to medicate patients and help them manage their symptoms, but if their condition required surgical correction you'd need to refer them to a surgeon. General surgeons and gastroenterologists often collaborate on treatments such as a liver transplant or bowel resection, and general surgeons or colorectal surgeons -- a subspecialty within general surgery -- remove cancers of the digestive tract.
Whichever specialty you choose, you'll need to invest a lot of time in education and training. Completing your undergraduate degree and medical degree will take a total of eight years. Once you graduate, you'll enter either a general surgical residency or an internal medicine residency. The surgical residency usually takes five years. If you want to be a gastroenterologist, you'll complete a three-year residency in internal medicine, then three years' fellowship in the specialty. Most doctors in either discipline choose to become board-certified, by taking their board's exams after each residency or fellowship. It's not mandatory, but patients and employers are often wary of doctors who aren't certified.
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