Surgeons perform operations to repair the body after an injury or correct a deformity, or conduct preventative surgery on individuals with a debilitating disorder or disease. They diagnose illnesses through patient examination and by obtaining the medical history of the patient. Surgeons also perform, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and counsel patients on preventive treatment of diseases, hygiene and diet.
If a surgeon believes that an operation is the best way to help improve a patient’s condition, he or she will perform surgery while the patient is under anesthesia. Many surgeons specialize in particular areas, such as orthopedic surgery to repair the musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular surgery to correct heart issues, neurological surgery to treat the brain and nervous system, or otolaryngology to address ear, nose and throat problems. Plastic or reconstructive surgery is another popular specialization.
Surgeons may be either a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO).
Surgeon Job Summary
- Many surgeons work long, irregular hours.
- Entrance into medical school is very competitive.
- Medical training is one of the most demanding of any occupation, but earnings are among the highest.
- Surgeons should find very good job opportunities, especially in low-income and rural areas.
Surgeons Job Description and Work Environment
Surgeons generally work in clean, well-lighted hospital settings, and typically stand for much of their workday. Most of them work in surgical outpatient centers or in hospitals. They may spend a certain amount of time in their office each week, seeing patients and arranging surgeries.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 43% of surgeons worked 50 hours or more per week in 2008. Around 9% of them worked part-time. Many are on call, even when they are not officially working, and may address patients’ health issues over the phone. They are often required to make emergency visits to nursing homes or hospitals.
Many surgeons work as part of a team in a group practice or healthcare organization. This type of arrangement provides backup coverage, allowing surgeons to take turn being on call so there is always someone available to patients around the clock.
Education, Training and Licensing
Surgeons must undergo rigid educational training to earn their licenses and practice medicine in the United States. Formal education and training generally consists of four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school and three to eight years as an intern and resident depending on the surgeon’s specialty. A few schools have combined undergraduate studies and medical school into six or seven year programs.
Premedical students must take mathematics, biology, physics, English, and organic and inorganic chemistry, as well as courses in social sciences and humanities. Candidates must submit transcripts, letters of recommendation and their scores from the Medical College Admission Test. Participation in extracurricular activities as well as the applicant’s leadership qualities, personality and character are also considered. In addition, some schools require an interview with the admissions committee.
The first two years of medical school are comprised of laboratory and classroom work with such courses as physiology, biochemistry, anatomy, laws governing medicine, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology and medical ethics. Future surgeons learn how to diagnose illnesses after taking medical histories and examining patients. During the last two years, students work in hospitals and clinics under the supervision of an experienced physician where they learn about chronic, preventive, rehabilitative and acute care. Students rotate through specialty areas, such as surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and others.
After graduation, most surgeons begin their residency, which is paid, on-the-job training that is usually completed in a hospital.
Surgeons, like all physicians, must acquire their medical licenses by passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). All states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories license physicians. Surgeons may spend up to seven years in residency training in order to earn certification by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).
Students considering a medical career should have high levels of self-motivation as well as the ability to withstand the pressure and long hours of school and work. They should also have emotional stability, a good bedside manner and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. To keep up with medical advances, surgeons must be willing to study throughout their careers.
Surgeon Employment Figures, Projections, Salary and Earnings
Surgeons held about 44,560 jobs in May 2009, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The majority of surgeons either had their own practice or worked in a group practice with other physicians. A smaller percentage worked in general medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, and colleges, universities and professional schools.
The BLS expects surgeon employment to grow much faster than the average, with 22% growth from 2008 to 2018. The growing and aging population plus the expansion of healthcare-related industries will spur this growth. However, job increases may be tempered by technology that has enabled surgeons to diagnose and treat more patients in a shorter amount of time.
How much do surgeons make? BLS reports indicate that the majority of surgeons had an annual salary in excess of $165,000 as of May 2009. While the lowest 10% had an income at or below $121,830, the average yearly salary for all surgeons were $219,770.