What Physicians and Surgeons Do
Physicians often work closely with other healthcare staff including physician assistants, registered nurses, and medical records and health information technicians.
Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses and address health maintenance. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They often counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.
There are two types of physicians, with similar degrees: M.D. (Medical Doctor) and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Both use the same methods of treatment, including drugs and surgery, but D.O.s place additional emphasis on the body's musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine, and holistic (whole-person) patient care. D.O.s are most likely to be primary care physicians, although they work in all specialties.
Physicians and surgeons typically do the following:
- Take a patient’s medical history and perform a physical exam
- Document and update charts and patient information to show findings and treatments
- Order tests and consultations for other physicians or healthcare staff to perform
- Review test results to identify abnormal findings
- Recommend, design, and implement a treatment plan
- Address concerns or answer questions that patients have about their health and well-being
- Help patients take care of their health by discussing topics such as proper nutrition and hygiene
Physicians and surgeons focus on a particular type of practice. Within their area of focus, they also may specialize or subspecialize. The following are examples of types of physicians and surgeons:
Anesthesiologists focus on the care of surgical patients and on pain relief. They administer drugs (anesthetics) that reduce or eliminate the sensation of pain during an operation or another medical procedure. During surgery, they adjust the amount of anesthetic as needed and monitor the patient's heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and breathing. They also provide pain relief for patients in intensive care, for women in labor, and for patients suffering from chronic pain.
Cardiologists diagnose and treat diseases or conditions of the heart and blood vessels, such as valve problems, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. Cardiologists may work with adults or specialize in pediatrics (typically newborns through age 21). Although they treat many of the same disorders in either population, cardiologists in pediatric care focus on conditions that patients are born with rather than on those that develop later in life.
Dermatologists provide care for diseases relating to the skin, hair, and nails. They treat patients who may have melanoma or other skin cancers. They may offer both medical and surgical dermatology services.
Emergency medicine physicians treat patients in urgent medical situations. These physicians evaluate, care for, and stabilize patients whose illness or injury requires immediate attention. Unlike many other physicians, who often choose to specialize, most emergency medical physicians are generalists.
Family medicine physicians are generalists who address health maintenance and assess and treat conditions that occur in everyday life. These conditions include sinus and respiratory infections, intestinal ailments, and broken bones. Family medicine physicians typically have regular, long-term patients, who may include all members of the same household.
General internal medicine physicians diagnose and provide nonsurgical treatment for a range of problems that affect internal organs and systems such as the stomach, kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. Internists use a variety of diagnostic techniques to treat patients through medication or hospitalization. Their patients are mostly adults. They may specialize, such as in gastroenterology or endocrinology.
Neurologists diagnose and treat those with disorders of the brain and nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and epilepsy. These physicians may specialize in one or more conditions, or they may work as pediatric neurologists to diagnose and manage the care of children with autism, behavioral disorders, or other neurological conditions.
Obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) provide care and counsel to women regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and the female reproductive system. They also diagnose and treat health issues specific to women, such as cervical cancer, ovarian cysts, and symptoms related to menopause.
Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat conditions of the eye. Treatment may include surgery to correct vision problems or to prevent vision loss from glaucoma and other diseases. Ophthalmologists also may fit eyeglasses, prescribe contact lenses, and provide other vision services.
Orthopedic surgeons diagnose and treat conditions of or injuries to the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They may specialize in certain areas of the body, such as the foot and ankle, or in a particular type of practice, such as sports medicine.
Pathologists test body tissue, fluids, and organs and review test results to diagnose diseases. These physicians may choose specializations that include clinical pathology, which focuses on laboratory analysis of bodily fluids, and anatomical pathology, which focuses on examinations of tissue and other samples acquired through autopsy or surgery.
Pediatricians provide care for infants, children, teenagers, and young adults. They specialize in diagnosing and treating problems specific to younger people. Most pediatricians administer vaccinations and treat common illnesses, minor injuries, and infectious diseases. Some pediatricians specialize in serious medical conditions that commonly affect younger patients, such as autoimmune disorders.
Pediatric surgeons diagnose, treat, and manage a variety of disorders and diseases in fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents. These surgeons collaborate with physicians involved in a child’s medical care—including neonatologists, pediatricians, and family medicine physicians—to determine the best treatment options for the child.
Psychiatrists are primary mental health physicians. They diagnose and treat mental illnesses through a combination of personal counseling (psychotherapy), psychoanalysis, hospitalization, and medication. Psychotherapy involves psychiatrists helping their clients change behavioral patterns and explore past experiences. Psychoanalysis involves long-term psychotherapy and counseling. Psychiatrists may prescribe medications to correct chemical imbalances that cause some mental illnesses.
Radiologists review and interpret x rays and other medical images, such as ultrasounds, to diagnose injuries or diseases. They may specialize, such as in diagnostic radiology, which involves reviewing images and recommending treatment or additional testing, or in interventional radiology, which includes diagnosing patients and treating them with minimally invasive techniques.
Physicians in healthcare establishments work daily with other healthcare staff, such as registered nurses, other physicians, medical assistants, and medical records and health information technicians.
Some physicians choose to work in fields that do not involve patient care, such as medical research or public policy.