Doctors who practice in the United States all receive a similar education—they either attend an allopathic or osteopathic medical program. However, many will go even further into the field, pursuing a specialty. Some areas of practice involve surgery, which makes the doctors who practice surgery surgeons. Doctors who practice with little to no surgery are referred to as physicians. So while all surgeons are doctors, not all doctors are surgeons.
Chances are you probably already knew this, but there are actually some differences between surgeons and doctors, besides what they’re called.
A prerequisite for medical schools requires a four-year undergraduate pre-medical program with a Bachelor of Science degree or higher. Many applicants earn a Master’s degree or doctorate before applying to either type of school. Some osteopathic schools only require a Bachelor of Science degree without students having followed a pre-medical track, but courses in the sciences are strongly encouraged. There are a few exceptions for students in special programs who have made prior arrangements.
Allopathic and osteopathic education represents the next step in obtaining licensure, since a four-year doctorate requiring hands-on clinical experience is necessary. Additional instruction in pharmacology, chemistry, medical ethics, physiology, and more is also compulsory. After graduating, residency is typically in order and this is where physicians and surgeons begin to diverge. Physicians practice under the supervision of experienced doctors during residency, while surgeons spend their time learning and fine-tuning a range of surgical techniques. Physicians’ residencies typically last three to four years, while residency for surgeons could take five to nine years.
Physicians practice in primary care, such as family doctors and pediatricians, or pursue a specialty. They advise patients on wellness, order and interpret tests, and treat illness and disease. Surgeons perform many of the same duties but they also correct illnesses, injuries, and deformities through surgery. Both sides work in clinical settings, such as hospitals and physicians’ offices, and in nonclinical environments, like insurance companies and nonprofit organizations. In 2020, physicians and surgeons accounted for 727,000 jobs, and roles were reported as follows:
Specialties between physicians and surgeons vary, too. Physicians have more than 160 specialties and subspecialties to choose from, whereas surgeons can choose to become either general surgeons or pursue one of 14 types of surgical subspecialties.
Being a surgeon doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more money than a physician. Both professions pay well and depend on location (and sometimes chosen specialties). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that physicians and surgeons are among the highest paid of all occupations with the medium wage equal to or greater than $208,000 per year. Health eCareers has found the base pay to be closer to $257,940 per year, based on data collected from 4,272 respondents. Geographic location can make a big difference. New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey clocked in at the highest rates, up to $341,000 per year. Thoracic surgery and orthopedic surgery are two of the highest-paid surgery specialties.
Both careers necessitate working long, sometimes irregular hours. Being on call may also be required.
Job outlook as a whole has a slower than average growth. Both sides are projected to grow 3 percent from now to 2030, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Despite the limited growth expectation, approximately 22,700 openings for physicians and surgeons are anticipated each year, on average, for the next eight years. Many of these openings are assumed to be needed to replace physicians and surgeons who either transfer to different occupations, retire, or exit the workforce for a different career. The growing, aging population is expected to drive overall demand for physicians and surgeons as rates of chronic illnesses increase.
All states require physicians and surgeons to be licensed, and requirements differ by state. Everyone must also pass a standardized national licensure exam. Medical doctors take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and doctors of osteopathic medicine take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.
Board certification in a specialty might not be required for physicians and surgeons, but it can increase employment opportunities. To obtain board certification, candidates must complete a residency program and pass a specialty certification exam from a medical certifying board, such as the American Board of Medical Specialties, the American Board of Physician Specialties, and the American Osteopathic Association.