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What Does a General Surgeon Do?

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General surgeons are responsible for caring for patients with a broad range of conditions that commonly require surgery. They can perhaps best be described as surgeons who do not specialize in a field requiring additional training, such as heart surgery or neurosurgery. According to the American College of Surgeons, general surgery is the second most common surgical specialty, after obstetrics and gynecology.

Scope of the Specialty

According to the American Board of Surgery, a general surgeon has expertise in conditions that affect these bodily systems:

  • Alimentary canal (the path food takes through the body) 
  • Abdominal organs 
  • Endocrine system 
  • Breast, skin and soft tissues 

General surgeons also receive intensive training in surgical critical care, surgical oncology (cancer treatment) and trauma treatment. Even so, the surgeries that a general surgeon performs can involve almost any organ or body system, depending on the circumstances of a case.

Other Necessary Knowledge

In addition to surgery, a general surgeon must be able to assess and treat trauma, soft tissue wounds, cysts, abscesses, abdominal wall hernias, breast conditions, varicose veins and peptic ulcers. Required knowledge for a general surgeon includes the basics of anatomy, physiology and pathology, as well as how wounds heal, fluid management, treatment of shock, resuscitation and the management of postoperative pain.

Typical Duties

All general surgeons are required to perform comprehensive general surgery examinations. The surgeon takes a medical history and performs a detailed physical examination of the patient, then makes a diagnosis based on the information she has obtained. She develops a treatment plan specific to the patient that incorporates her findings, and modifies it as necessary. A patient who has vascular disease, for example, might require special attention to potential complications during surgery. The surgeon shares her recommendations with the patient, performs the surgery and manages the postoperative care.

Education and Qualifications

Education in general surgery is at the core of every surgical specialty. Some specialties even require that surgeons become certified in general surgery before they can get specialty training. General surgeons need four years of college, four years of medical school and a minimum of five years in residency. All states require licensing, and many also require also board certification.


Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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