Meredith Cook

Photo credit: Huji (Wikipedia)

What They Do

Physicians diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. They examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They also counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. There are two types of physicians, with corresponding 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 can be found in all specialties.

Physicians typically take a patient's medical history, update charts and patient information to show current findings and treatments, order tests for nurses or other healthcare staff to perform, review test results to identify any abnormal findings, recommend and design a plan of treatment, address concerns or answer questions that patients have about their health and well-being, and help patients take care of their health by discussing topics such as proper nutrition and hygiene.

Physicians work in one or more of several specialties. Some types of physicians are anesthesiologists, family and general physicians, general internists, general pediatricians, obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs), psychiatrists, and surgeons. Physicians may work in a number of other medical specialties and subspecialties. The most common subspecialties are allergists, cardiologists, dermatologists, gastroenterologists, opthalmologists, pathologists, and radiologists. Physicians work daily with other healthcare staff, such as registered nurses, other physicians, medical assistants, and medical records and health information technicians.

Work Environment

Many physicians work in private offices or clinics, often with a small staff of nurses and administrative personnel. Some practice independently or with a small group of other doctors. Increasingly, physicians are working in group practices, healthcare organizations, or hospitals, where they share a large number of patients with other doctors. The group setting allows them more time off and lets them coordinate care for their patients, but it gives them less independence than solo practitioners have.

Most physicians work full time. Many physicians work long, irregular, and overnight hours. Physicians may travel between their offices and hospitals to care for their patients. While on call, a physician may need to address a patient's concerns over the phone or make an emergency visit to a hospital or nursing home.

How To Become One

Physicians have demanding education and training requirements. Almost all physicians complete at least 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, and, depending on their specialty, 3 to 8 years in internship and residency programs.

Some important qualities that are helpful in performing the work are communication skills, compassion, detail oriented, dexterity, leadership skills, organizational skills, patience, physical stamina, and problem-solving skills.

After medical school, almost all graduates enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital and varies in duration, generally lasting from 3 to 8 years, depending on the specialty.

All states require physicians to be licensed; requirements vary by state. To qualify for a license, candidates must graduate from an accredited medical school, complete residency training in their specialty, and pass written and practical exams. All physicians must pass a standardized national licensure examination. M.D.s take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). Certification is not required for physicians; however, it may increase their employment opportunities. M.D.s and D.O.s seeking board certification in a specialty may spend up to 7 years in residency training; the length of time varies with the specialty. An examination after residency is required for certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).


Current median annual wages: $187,200

Hourly wages: $90.00

Job Outlook

Employment of physicians is projected to grow 18 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. Job growth will occur because of the continued expansion of healthcare-related industries. The growing and aging population is expected to drive overall growth in the demand for physician services as consumers continue to seek high levels of care that uses the latest technologies, diagnostic tests, and therapies.

Similar Occupations


Job Duties: Chiropractors treat patients with health problems of the neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They use spinal adjustments, manipulation, and other techniques to manage patients' health concerns, such as back and neck pain.

Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree

Median Pay: $66,160


Job Duties:Dentists diagnose and treat problems with a patient’s teeth, gums, and related parts of the mouth. They provide advice and instruction on taking care of teeth and gums and on diet choices that affect oral health.

Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree

Median Pay: $149,310


Job Duties: Optometrists examine the eyes and other parts of the visual system. They also diagnose, and treat visual problems, and manage diseases, injuries, and other disorders of the eyes. They prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses as needed.

Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree

Median Pay: $97,820

Physician Assistants

Job Duties: Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on a team under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.

Entry-Level Education: Master’s degree

Median Pay: $90,930


Job Duties: Podiatrists provide medical care for people with foot, ankle, and lower leg problems. They diagnose illnesses, treat injuries, and perform surgery involving the lower extremities.

Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree

Median Pay: $116,440

Registered Nurses

Job Duties: Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.

Entry-Level Education: Associate’s degree

Median Pay: $65,470


Job Duties: Veterinarians care for the health of animals and work to improve public health. They diagnose, treat, and research medical conditions and diseases of pets, livestock, and other animals.

Entry-Level Education: Doctoral or professional degree

Median Pay: $84,460


Occupational Outlook Handbook -

Comment Stream