What Do Surgeons & Doctors Do?

After graduation, students decide whether to pursue medicine or surgery.
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Medicine is a diverse profession, and there are many different types of doctors. Some specialize in treating specific conditions, some focus on one type of patient, and others on treating one area of the body. But there is a clear dinstinction between surgeons and other doctors. While their early training is identical, these physicians follow different paths after medical school.

Starting Out

    Whatever their ultimate ambitions, all doctors start out by earning an undergraduate degree. These pre-medical degrees can be in any major, as long as they cover the course material you need to get into medical school. That usually includes calculus or statistics, a handful of humanities courses, and a number of classes in basic and advanced sciences. This leads to four more years in a medical or osteopathic college. The first two years are spent in course work, learning human anatomy, pharmacology, medical genetics, immunology and similar topics. The third and fourth years focus on clinical rotations, where students are exposed to the major branches of medicine.


    After graduation, newly-trained doctors choose a specialty and enroll in a suitable residency program. Some opt for non-surgical fields such as internal medicine, family medicine, neurology or cardiology. They treat patients in various ways, ranging from over-the-counter pain medications for minor problems to aggressive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation for cancers. Depending on their area of specialization, physicians might also set broken bones, prescribe special diets or lifestyle changes, arrange physiotherapy, treat infertility, or use medical imaging to help other doctors with diagnoses. Listening to patients and diagnosing their condition is a core skill.


    Some medical conditions can't be treated effectively through drugs or other therapies, and have to be physically corrected through surgery. Like other doctors, surgeons learn their skills through specialized residencies and fellowships after leaving medical school. These include traditional open surgeries, as well as newer less-invasive laparoscopic and endoscopic techniques. Those use miniature instruments inserted through small incisions or tubes, and enable surgeons to do their work without major trauma to the patient. While primary-care physicians treat a patient over a period of years, surgeons are more likely to treat a specific problem and might not see that patient again.

Middle Ground

    The line between medicine and surgery seems clear-cut, but in real life there is some overlap. For example, otolaryngologists and urologists are trained as surgeons, but might primarily treat their patients through non-surgical means. Another gray area revolves around hybrid specialties such as interventional cardiology, neurology or radiology. These doctors aren't surgeons, but they perform minimally-invasive procedures similar to endoscopic or laparoscopic surgery. They insert miniature instruments through a tube called a catheter, using them to repair blood vessels or heart valves. When successful, these procedures can prevent serious heart attacks or stroke, and help patients avoid the stress of surgery.

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