Orthopedic doctors focus on problems relating to the skeletal system, including muscles and tendons. This branch of medicine has many related specialties, with some practitioners focusing on sports injuries, children or the elderly. A career in orthopedics requires intense study and years of education, but it is a challenging and rewarding option in the health field.
Orthopedic doctors are highly educated, and must complete a bachelor's degree and then apply to medical school. In college the applicant will take many science courses in addition to a general course of study. Following graduation, the applicant will take the MCAT, which is the qualifying exam required to enter medical school. The first two years of medical school are spent in the classroom studying topics like anatomy and biochemistry, and the next two years typically in rotations among different medical specialties. Students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam in order to become licensed physicians.
After graduating medical school, orthopedists spend up to 6 years taking part in internships and residencies, learning the finer points of their field. The first 2 to 3 years of a residency are spent in general surgery training, and the remaining time is spent focusing specifically on orthopedic surgeries, like spinal fusions.
Orthopedists may work in small clinics or large hospitals. Some have a relatively calm professional life, perhaps specializing in sports injuries at a modestly sized private practice, while other orthopedists work in busy hospitals and treat injuries ranging from simple sprained ankles to bone tumors and infections. Orthopedists usually have a specialty, treating one particular area of the body, though they may also treat patients with other ailments.
Surgery is often a large part of orthopedics. Some doctors may not operate often, treating on an outpatient basis, but many spend a significant part of their careers in the operating room. Some orthopedists specialize in hip and knee replacements, a specialty set for increased demand due to an aging population who will require new joints as they grow older. Others will perform spinal surgeries, or might operate on professional athletes so they can get back in the game as soon as possible.
According to the Pay Scale website, the median salary for orthopedists was just under $300,000 in 2009, making it a profitable career. However, most doctors carry a large debt from medical school, so in addition to the expenses of their practice, there are high student loan payments to make for many years after graduation. Salaries fluctuate depending on specialty; the Health Care Training Center states that an orthopedist with 1 to 2 years of experience who treats hand, elbow and shoulder problems will make, on average, $288,000 annually, but a spinal specialist in the same position might make $398,000 (as of 2009).