What Is It Like to Be a Doctor?

Career Information

Doctor
A doctor goes over test results with her patient. Cathy Yeulet / 123RF

After providing diagnoses, a doctor treats patients who are suffering from diseases and injuries. A doctor is also called a physician and is often referred to as either an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine).

M.D.s and D.O.s both use traditional treatment methods such as drugs and surgery, but D.O.s emphasize the body's musculoskeletal system, preventative medicine, and holistic patient care.

Doctors can be primary care physicians, or they may specialize in a particular area of medicine such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, psychiatry, endocrinology, ophthalmology, or anesthesiology.

Quick Facts

  • Doctors' salaries vary according to their specialty. In 2015, general practitioners earned a median annual salary of $184,390; psychiatrists, surgeons, and gynecologists had a median salary of over $187,200 yearly; pediatricians made $170,300 per year.
  • There were approximately 708,300 people employed in this occupation in 2014.
  • Most doctors work in private offices alone or with one or two other physicians, but increasingly many are opting to join large group practices or hospitals.
  • 10% of all doctors are self employed, either owning or co-owning a private practice.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job outlook for this occupation to be excellent. It predicts it will grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2024.

    What Are a Doctor's Job Duties?

    A doctor's tasks vary by specialty, but these are some typical job duties taken from online ads for positions found on Indeed.com:

    • "Assess, diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions, ranging from broken bones to more exotic illnesses"
    • "Prescribe and administer treatment to injury victims"
    • "Provide follow-up care of patients, referrals and laboratory results"
    • "Provide supervision to physician assistants and nurse practitioners"
    • "Sign prescriptions and documents that require a medical doctor's signature"

    The Hard Truth About Being a Doctor

    Long, often irregular hours, can make this career less glamorous than some television shows would lead us to believe. Doctors are often "on-call," which means they have to respond to their patients' medical emergencies even when they aren't scheduled to work. This can interrupt them during downtime like weekends, evenings, and holidays. Many doctors are joining large group practices because it limits their on-call hours by letting them take turns with colleagues.

    Education and Licensing Requirements

    To become a doctor you will have to attend an accredited medical school for four years and then complete post-graduate medical education in the form of a three to eight year residency training program. The length will depend on the specialty you choose. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) accredits medical school programs that grant an M.D. degree. Osteopathic medical school programs (those that confer a D.O. degree) receive accreditation from the American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA).

    The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA)  accredit residency programs for M.D.s and D.O.s respectively. In July 2015 these organizations, along with the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), began moving toward a single accreditation system. This transition will be complete in July 2020.

    You will need a license from a state medical or osteopathic board to practice as a doctor in the U.S. Contact the board in the state in which you plan to practice to learn about all the requirements there. You can find contact information at the Federation of State Medical Boards website.

    While requirements vary, all M.D.s must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and D.O.s must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).

    What Soft Skills Do Doctors Need?

    In addition to graduation from medical school, licensure, and voluntary certification, you also need certain soft skills, or personal qualities, to succeed in this occupation. These are some of them:

    • Problem Solving: After evaluating a patient's symptoms and making a diagnosis, you will have to choose an appropriate treatment. To do this you will need critical thinking skills to compare available options.
    • Communication Skills: Excellent listening skills allow a physician to understand his or her patients' symptoms and concerns. He or she needs superior verbal communication skills to explain diagnoses to patients and their families, and convey instructions and information about treatment.
    • Service Orientation: One of your primary goals must be to help people.
    • Monitoring: You will have to be attentive to changes in your patients' conditions and respond to them appropriately.

    Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

    Occupations With Related Activities and Tasks

     DescriptionAnnual Salary (2015)Educational Requirements
    Registered NurseProvides medical treatment and emotional support to patients and their families.$67,490Bachelor's of Science, Associate, or Diploma in Nursing
    DentistTreats and helps prevent problems with teeth and mouth tissue.$152,700Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS), Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM), or Doctor of Medical Dentistry (DMD)

    Veterinarian

    Provides health care to animals.$88,490Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

    Optometrist

    Diagnoses and treats vision disorders and eye diseases.$103,900Doctor of Optometry

     

    Sources:
    Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 (visited February 17, 2017).

    Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online (visited February 17, 2017).

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