Physicians and Surgeons: Similarities and Differences

by Patricia O. Urquiaga | Oct 12, 2020 | healthcareproviders, #Physicians, differences, healthcareprofessionals, medicalspecialties, physicianjobs, similarities, surgeons, surgicalsubspecialties
Physicians and Surgeons: Similarities and Differences

“All surgeons are physicians, but not all physicians are surgeons.”

Physicians and surgeons are amongst the highest paid professionals in the country.

Therefore, because they’re both in the healthcare industry, undergo similar education and other factors, it’s easy to think that physicians and surgeons have the same responsibilities when in reality, they don’t.

Let’s recap the basic similarities and differences between physicians and surgeons.


Physicians and surgeons have a few similarities.

Starting with education, in the U.S. all practicing physicians receive similar education (doctoral or professional).

Upon completion of medical school physicians go through clinical rotations to gain experience in several areas of medicine. These areas of medicine are called specialties. Specialties include cardiology, neurology, pediatric, surgery and much more. Typically, before applying for residency programs, physicians will have already chosen their area of specialty.

Once physicians are done with medical school and residency, it’s required for them to obtain their medical license. Every state has unique requirements and processes when it comes to obtaining your medical license. Therefore, it’s important for physicians and surgeons to look into the board of medicine of the state where they intend to practice.

Board certification is optional but highly preferred and if physicians and surgeons decide to obtain this, they must follow specific requirements by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).

On the other hand, when it comes to practicing physicians and surgeons, they both examine patients. More specifically they:

  • Take medical history.
  • Update patient charts and information.
  • Prescribe medications.
  • Order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests.
  • Design treatment plans.
  • Counsel patients on diet, hygiene, preventative care and more.


While physicians and surgeons have similar duties, it’s important to understand one main factor that distinguishes physicians and surgeons.

Unlike physicians, surgeons are the ones who operate on patients. Most operations are done to treat injuries (such as a broken arm), diseases (i.e. tumor removal), deformities etc.

Other differences among physicians and surgeons include:

Medical Specialties: Medical specialties between physicians and surgeons vary. Physicians alone have over 19 medical specialties to choose from – not including subspecialties. Some of those medical specialties include:

  • Allergy and immunology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Dermatology
  • Diagnostic radiology
  • Emergency medicine
  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Medical Genetics

Surgeons on the other hand, can choose to become a general surgeon or pursue a subspecialty in a specific type of surgery. There are 13 types of surgical subspecialties including:

  • Colon and rectal surgeon
  • Neurosurgeon
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeon
  • Orthopaedic surgeon
  • Otolaryngologist
  • Pediatric surgeon
  • Plastic and maxillofacial surgeon
  • Thoracic surgeon

Length of Residency: As previously mentioned, all physicians start off with similar education. Once they reach their third and fourth year of medical school, physicians undergo clinical rotations under a specific medical specialty. Physicians choose their medical specialty before applying to residency programs and the length of their residency varies depending on the medical specialty they choose. Typically, the length of residency for a general physician is around 3-4 years while the length of residency for surgeons can take anywhere from 5-8 years.

Other Facts About Physicians and Surgeons

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, physicians and surgeons held approximately 756K jobs – earning around $208K or more.

Physicians work for private practices, healthcare organizations or hospitals while surgeons tend to work in sterile environments where they can perform surgery. Many of them work full-time, and are accustomed to long, irregular and/or overnight hours.

To learn more about physicians and surgeons, take a look at our FREE physician jobs resource.


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