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The Difference Between a Physician & a Surgeon

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Physicians and surgeons are some of the highest-paid and most well-educated individuals in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 661,400 individuals employed as physicians and surgeons in 2008. The number of new jobs in these fields was expected to grow to 805,500 by 2018. When choosing a career in the medical field, it can be helpful to know the basic differences between physicians and surgeons before picking a specialization.

Job Description

One of the major differences between the physician and the surgeon is the basic job tasks that each perform. Surgeons are physicians, but the same is not true in the other direction. General-practice doctors cannot typically pull out the scalpel and start cutting on patients when they are in need of surgery. Surgeons typically have to have a separate license in the state in which they are employed, whereas the practicing physician can generally get by with a general physician's license. Physicians diagnose and treat disease but often do so without using surgical means, unless necessary. Unless the physician has a surgical license, they will often refer patients to a surgeon when surgical treatment is needed. Many surgeons diagnose and treat disease through nonsurgical methods, but it is usually in an area of medical specialization in which they are considered experts, such as cardiothoracic medicine.


Another difference between surgeons and physicians is the education they receive. The education differences are subtle, however, given the fact that both physicians and surgeons obtain bachelor's degrees and complete medical school, spending about eight years completing identical educations. The primary education difference comes in the type of medical residency they complete. Whereas a general physician will complete a residency that is about three years in length and covers either general medical practice or an area of specialization, the surgeon will often complete a five-year general surgical residency followed by a shorter residency or fellowship of one to three years in his field of specialization.

Working Conditions

A primary difference between physicians and surgeons is the working conditions that both face on a daily basis. The general practice physician with his own private practice will often work regular business hours Monday through Friday. Physicians in private practice associated with a physicians group or hospital may complete hospital rotations once or twice per week to visit patients under their care. The same is true for physicians who double as surgeons. Those who are primarily surgeons, however, may work long extended hours in the hospital and may be on call one day of the week or all week. Surgeons may work late-night or early-morning shifts, or even a combination of the two. Overall, the working conditions for general physicians are much more favorable than those for surgeons.


Compensation can offset the less than favorable conditions that surgeons often face. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for surgeons was $219,770 in 2009. On the other hand, the mean annual salary for general practitioners was considerably less, at $168,550 per year in 2009. The bureau also notes that in 2008, the median salary for primary care physicians was $186,044 per year, but those with a field of medical specialization earned a median salary of $339,738 per year.


Jared Lewis is a professor of history, philosophy and the humanities. He has taught various courses in these fields since 2001. A former licensed financial adviser, he now works as a writer and has published numerous articles on education and business. He holds a bachelor's degree in history, a master's degree in theology and has completed doctoral work in American history.

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