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Physician Career Education and Advancement

Jan 2007

Job description
Physicians serve an essential role in our society. They diagnose and treat sick and injured people through examinations and tests. They also advise their patients on such matters as preventative care and personal hygiene.

Doctors can be general practitioners or choose a specialty, such as internal medicine, cardiology, endocrinology, neurology, oncology, obstetrics, gynecology, or sports medicine. Primary care physicians tend to see the same patients on a regular basis for preventive care and to treat a variety of ailments. General and family practitioners emphasize comprehensive healthcare for patients of all ages and for the family as a group.

People who wish to become physicians must have a desire to help people, be self-motivated, and be able to withstand the pressures and long hours of medical education and practice. Physicians must also be emotionally strong and have good people and communication skills. They must also be able to relate to their patients as people and work to cure not only the illness but the person as whole. In general, doctors should have a high degree of patience and great compassion for human beings.

A day in the life…
Many physicians work in small private offices or clinics, with assistance from a staff of nurses and administrative personnel. Many physicians work long, irregular hours, and must travel frequently between their offices and hospitals to care for their patients. Many physicians are on call, and must therefore deal with patient concerns either over the phone or at their patients' homes, and make emergency visits to hospitals or nursing homes. Being a doctor can be a very physically and mentally trying occupation, as they must often be the bearers of bad news, breaking painful news to patients and their families. But it can also be very rewarding to heal people and continuously improve human lives.

Education and training
It takes many years of education and training to become a physician. Typically, three to four years of undergraduate school and four years of medical school are required, with three to eight years of internships and residency, depending on the area of specialty. But there are a few medical schools that offer combined undergraduate and medical school programs that last for six years.

Premedical students must complete undergraduate work in courses such as physics, biology, mathematics, and chemistry. Medical students spend most of their first two years in laboratories and classrooms taking courses in anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics and law. They also learn to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.

During the last two years of medical school, students work with patients under the supervision of licensed physicians in hospitals and clinics to learn about acute, chronic, preventive, and rehabilitative care. They make rotations within internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery in order to gain experience in various areas and to help determine their interests and skills.

All medical students must be licensed in order to begin practicing medicine. Physicians must graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete one to seven years of graduate medical education to obtain licensure. Physicians licensed in one State can usually get a license to practice in other states with relative ease. Physicians must be involved in continuous career education to keep up with medical advances and to best serve their patients. This will help them respond to the changing demands of today's rapidly developing health care environment.

Physicians have among the highest earnings of any occupation. Following are national salaries for various physician specialties based on at least two to four years of experience.

Median Salary

Source:, September 2003
For this month's salaries: Salary Wizard

Job outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physicians will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2010. Most employment will be due to the expansion of the health care industry as a whole. And the growing and aging population will also cause growth in the demand for physicians. While job prospects may be better for primary care physicians such as general and family practitioners and pediatricians, a substantial number of jobs for specialists will also be created because of the growing demand for specialty care.

The number of physicians entering the field has begun to slow, and will likely decline over the next few years. Opportunities are expected to be best in rural and low-income areas, because many physicians find these areas unattractive due to such factors as lower income potential and isolation from the medical society.

Related occupations
Nursing is the clearest related profession to physicians. Although the educational demands are less rigorous, the responsibilities and work duties can be just as demanding. Nurse practitioners in particular hold related responsibilities, as they prescribe medicines and play a key role in patient care. Other related careers include lab technicians, pharmacology, biology, biochemistry, biophysics, chiropractor, dentistry, optometrists, physician assistants, podiatrists, speech-language pathologists and audiologists, and veterinarians.


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