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When a woman finds a skilled and compassionate OB/GYN who takes her insurance, she never lets go. These doctors specialize in women's reproductive health, which relates to any parts of the female body that are involved in conceiving and being pregnant. But OB/GYNs are not only for women who are pregnant or who plan to become pregnant. Regular OB/GYN visits is a critical part of a woman's health care, so these doctors are a vitally important part of the medical system. Think you might make a good OB/GYN? Only if you're ready for a big commitment: it takes around a decade of training to prepare for this career.
OBs vs. Gynecologists vs. OB/GYNs
A lot of people, even women, don't realize that not all obstetricians and gynecologists practice both specialties. Obstetricians specialize in pregnancy and labor. They see pregnant patients, deliver babies and do follow-up care for new mothers. Gynecologists specialize in women's reproductive health, but that involves a lot more than just pregnancy. They treat female patients of all ages, from pubescent teens onward. Even senior citizens sometimes see their OB/GYNs for cancer screenings and to treat hormonal issues.
Many doctors devote their careers to one of those two specialties. But OB/GYNs are trained and qualified as both obstetricians and gynecologists. An OB/GYN might care for a given patient over the course of decades, including delivering the patient's children.
What Does an OB/GYN Do?
An OB/GYN provides a number of services to female patients. A girl might start seeing an OB/GYN when she starts menstruating, becomes sexually active or turns 18, depending on the type of care she needs. At each annual visit, an OB/GYN will ask the patient questions about her sexual and reproductive health and do a physical exam (including a pelvic exam and breast exam). The doctor may help a patient make choices about birth control, test for sexually transmitted infections and diagnose any other physical issues related to reproductive organs, like ovarian cysts or certain types of cancer.
When a woman gets pregnant, her OB/GYN will schedule her for frequent office visits. The doctor will officially confirm that the patient is pregnant, calculate the baby's due date and counsel the mom-to-be about how to keep herself and her growing baby healthy. During the pregnancy, the OB/GYN will monitor the baby's growth and treat any complications that the mother develops. She may deliver the baby herself (although that's not always possible, depending on when and where the mother gives birth) and will see the patient for a few postpartum visits before the patient eventually returns to her pre-baby appointment schedule.
OB/GYNs also order mammograms, give vaccinations, help patients cope with menopause, treat women who are struggling with infertility and educate pregnant patients about their options. OB/GYNs perform surgical procedures too (in addition to caesarean sections). It's also important to note that, while OB/GYNs do specialize in treating and preventing conditions related to reproductive health, many women use an OB/GYN as a general physician, rather than seeing two doctors each year.
What are the OB/GYN Educational Requirements?
An OB/GYN career starts in college. Candidates should major in biology or a similar field that will help them get into medical school. After four years in medical school, a doctor-in-training will complete an OB/GYN residency program. Those programs take at least four years and include several rotations, which give doctors the chance to focus on different areas of obstetrics and gynecology such as gynecologic surgery, infertility, gynecologic oncology and so forth, while under the supervision of experienced doctors.
Some OB/GYNs start practicing medicine straight after residency. Others move from residencies into fellowships. A fellowship is just another type of intensive training program in which a doctor focuses on a specific subspecialty of reproductive medicine. These programs last for two to four years. Doctors move from fellowships into full-time positions.
After completing her training, an OB/GYN is expected to become board certified by the American Board of Obstetrics & Gynecology. The days-long process involves comprehensive testing, and passing the boards signifies that you have enough expertise to practice as an OB/GYN. (Being board certified isn't strictly required in order to work as a doctor, but practices and hospitals may require it for candidates they hire.) OB/GYNs often work in private practices but have connections to local hospitals – that way, when a patient goes into labor and checks into the hospital, her own doctor can do the delivery.
What Does an OB/GYN Get Paid?
The median annual salary for an OB/GYN was $235,240, as of 2017. (Median means that half of OB/GYNs earn more than that salary, and half earn less.) That works out to a median hourly rate of $113.10.
While OB/GYNs are highly paid, they don't earn as much (on average) as doctors in some other fields do. Doximity, a social networking site for physicians, surveyed more than 36,000 licensed doctors working in the United States in 2017 and calculated the average salaries for different specialities. Obstetrics and gynecology doctors reported an average annual salary of $314,000, landing them the twentieth spot on a list of the highest-paid specialties. (For contrast, neurosurgeons took the top spot with average salaries of $620,000 and doctors specializing in pediatric infectious diseases took the lowest spot with average salaries of $186,000.)
What Qualities Should I Have to Work as an OB/GYN?
All doctors should be compassionate and understanding toward their patients, but that's especially important in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. These doctors are often the people who first talk to young women about sex and their changing bodies. They treat women who dream of becoming mothers but can't get pregnant, and they treat women who are pregnant and are terrified and upset about it.
Women also talk to their OB/GYNs about sexual assault, concerns they have about their sex lives and symptoms that they find embarrassing. Furthermore, OB/GYNs do internal exams that can be uncomfortable and make patients feel vulnerable. So in addition to have a great deal of competency with the medical side of the field, OB/GYNs should also be reassuring and nonjudgmental so as to make their patients feel comfortable asking any questions that they have.
The need for sensitivity and understanding is why many women prefer to see female OB/GYNs. Like all medical specialties, the field was once comprised of exclusively male doctors. Today, most OB/GYNs are women. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 85 percent of OB/GYN residents in the class of 2013 to 2014 were women.
What Are Other Careers in the OB/GYN Field?
You don't need to spend 10+ years in school and in training to launch a career in obstetrics and gynecology. OB/GYN practices often employ physician assistants or nurse practitioners. They're medical professionals who acquire advanced degrees and training but who work under the supervision of doctors. Becoming a registered nurse and working in an OB/GYN private practice, or working as an OB nurse on the labor and delivery floor of a hospital, is another option.
Women who are passionate about supporting pregnant women and their babies might also become midwives or doulas. Midwives are licensed medical providers who provide prenatal care and perform deliveries, with the assistance of obstetricians when necessary. Doulas are childbirth coaches who may be trained by a certifying organization but aren't required to have any particular training.
- UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine: Obstetricians and gynecologists: What's the difference?
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Your First Gynecologic Visit (Especially for Teens)
- Tufts Medical Center: What happens during an OB/GYN visit at each stage of life?
- Doximity: First Annual Physician Compensation Report
- University of Illinois College of Medicine: Education and Training Requirements
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages: Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- American Medical Association: How Medical Specialties Vary by Gender
- Cleveland Clinic: Obstetric Health Care Providers: Choosing One Right For You
- Washington Post: Many women use an OB/GYN as their main doctor. Should they?
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.