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Physician Job Description, Career as a Physician, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: College and medical school, possibly with specialty training

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Physicians, or medical doctors (MDs), diagnose and treat diseases, injuries, and other disorders. They also work to promote good health and prevent illness. Physicians often supervise other health-care workers, such as physician assistants, nurses, and technicians.

Most American physicians are involved directly in patient care. Only about a tenth of all physicians in the United States work in areas other than patient care, such as administration or research. The majority of the physicians who provide patient care have their own practices or are partners in group practices. Others work full time in hospitals.

About a third of the physicians providing patient care are general practitioners. They treat a wide variety of common health problems. When general practitioners discover illnesses or injuries that need special care, they refer patients to specialists. Family practitioners, who are general practitioners, concentrate on primary health care for the entire family.

The other two-thirds of the physicians providing patient care are specialists who work in one particular branch of medicine. There are about thirty-five major fields of specialization with more than fifty different subspecialties. Physician specialties described in this book include anesthesiologist, dermatologist, gerontologist, ophthalmologist, psychiatrist, and surgeon. Specialties in primary care, which are described in brief in the following paragraphs, are internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, and pediatrics.

Physicians who specialize in internal medicine are called internists. They diagnose and treat problems of the internal organs, such as the liver, heart, and lungs. They do not perform surgery. Internists manage and treat common health problems, such as infections, influenza and pneumonia, as well as more A physician who specializes in providing health care for infants and children is called a pediatrician. (© LWA-Dann Tardif/zefa/Corbis.) serious, chronic, and complex illnesses. Their patients range in age from adolescents to the elderly.

Obstetrician/gynecologists (ob/gyns) focus on women's health. Along with general medical care of women, ob/gyns care for women before, during, and after pregnancy. They monitor not only women's state of health, but also that of their developing fetuses. They deliver the babies and care for the mothers after they have given birth. Ob/gyns also diagnose and treat diseases of the female reproductive, urinary, and rectal organs and breasts. They may prescribe medications, suggest exercise regimens, or perform surgery.

Pediatricians provide health care for children from birth through adolescence. They chart the growth and development of children, provide immunizations, and diagnose and treat illnesses, injuries, and behavioral problems. Pediatricians may refer children to specialists.

Education and Training Requirements

Students who want to be physicians usually get bachelor's degrees in sciences, such as chemistry or biology. Medical schools look for students who are well rounded, so other courses and activities are important. Most medical colleges have four-year programs that lead to doctor of medicine (MD) degrees. A few medical schools offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last six rather than eight years. Internship and residency—on-the-job medical training at hospitals—last from three to eight years.

In every state, physicians must be licensed. Requirements vary, although all states require degrees from approved medical colleges and licensing examinations. In most states MDs must also serve one or two years of residency in hospitals before they can be licensed.

Physicians who want to work as general practitioners usually serve three-year residencies in general internal medicine. Those who want to become specialists serve three-year residencies in their chosen fields. Specialists also need additional practice in their fields before they can be certified by the appropriate specialty boards. Physicians who want to go into teaching or research earn master's degrees or doctorates in particular sciences, such as biochemistry or microbiology.

Getting the Job

Some newly licensed physicians start their own practices and work alone. Others share offices in group practices or join health maintenance organizations (HMOs). A small percentage of physicians take salaried jobs in hospitals, clinics, government agencies, or private industry. Professional associations and medical colleges can provide information about going into private practice or finding salaried positions.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Most physicians advance by expanding their practices. They can improve their skills in general medicine or in special fields. Some physicians advance by teaching or doing research. Others study business administration and become hospital administrators.

Employment of physicians and surgeons is projected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014, largely because health-care industries are continuing to expand. New technologies permit more tests, more procedures, and new treatments for patients with conditions that were previously untreatable. The growing and aging population should generate demand for physicians as well. The greatest needs may be in the fields of family practice, geriatrics, internal medicine, pediatrics, and preventive care. Job opportunities should be good in rural and low-income areas; earnings potential may be lower.

Working Conditions

Physicians generally work in clean, comfortable offices, clinics, or hospitals. Those who have their own practices can control some of their working conditions. Many physicians work long and irregular hours. They must be available to handle emergencies. Some physicians limit their hours or work in specialties that have few emergencies.

Physicians need high intelligence, good health, and self-discipline. They should be able to communicate with many kinds of people. They must have good business sense and the ability to organize the work of others. Their profession demands that they continue to study new developments in medicine throughout their careers.

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary widely depending on experience, skill, location, field of specialization, and other factors. In 2004 physicians who had been in practice for more than one year earned the following median incomes: general practitioners, $156,010 per year; internists, $166,420; ob/gyns, $247,348; and pediatricians $161,331. Physicians who had their own practices tended to earn more than salaried physicians.

Where to Go for More Information

American College of Physicians
190 N. Independence Mall W.
Philadelphia, PA 19106-1572
(800) 523-1546

The American Medical Association
515 N. State St.
Chicago, IL 60610
(800) 621-8335

Self-employed physicians arrange their own benefits. For those who are salaried, benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

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