Surgery is a vast category of invasive and semi-invasive treatments to diagnose and treat injury, disease, and deformity by the use of surgical instruments. While there are many benefits to be gained from becoming a surgeon, such as a comfortable income and a high-level of job security, the main benefit for most doctors is the knowledge that their surgical skills and expertise play a fundamental role in improving the lives of their patients.
Surgeons are in charge of all aspects of the surgery process, which can last for many hours and be quite extensive, or require little time and be relatively minor. Doctors may choose to receive an education with training in many types of surgery, such as a general surgeon, or highly-specialized training, such as a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. In many cases, the specialties will overlap. A good example of this is foot surgery, which can be performed by either an orthopedic surgeon or a podiatric surgeon. Surgeons may also be dentists, veterinarians, and physicians.
What is a Surgeon?
Surgeons operate in the event of disease, illness or injury when other non-evasive treatments cannot correct the problem. They remove diseased tissue or organs to repair internal problems in the body, or replace organs with transplants. There are seven main settings surgeons can put their training, education, and skills to valuable use: Hospitals, ambulatory surgery settings, private practice, institutional and academic medicine, government programs, and the military.
In each of these areas, a surgeon will provide the diagnosis, preoperative, operative, and postoperative care to patients. A surgeon will present information regarding a patient’s surgery, answer questions, and give patients the knowledge to actively participate in their recovery. A surgeon must also stay well-informed about various types of medications, and the potential reactions that may occur during surgery. For more complicated surgeries, surgeons may work together, and in teaching hospitals, residents and interns may be paired with an experienced surgeon to observe and learn.
Essentially, surgeons oversee all aspects of a patient’s surgery. They oversee nurses and assisting technicians in the operating room, take great care to ensure sanitation standards are met, double-check to ensure all instruments are at-hand, oversee the administration of medications during the operation, and are prepared to carry out life-saving measures at any time during surgery.
Educational Requirements for Becoming a Surgeon
All surgeons require a considerable amount of formal education. By far, of all medical specialties, surgeons require the most intensive training. After all, a life is on the line. Before they enter an operating room, they must complete an often grueling, yet challenging set of educational requirements. These requirements include four years of undergraduate study, four years of medical school, leading to a Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.) and an additional three to ten years of surgical residency and fellowship at a hospital.
Aspiring surgeons generally begin by applying to a college with a strong pre-med program. Once enrolled in a college or university, a student will choose a major related to medicine, such as chemistry or physics. Following undergraduate school, a future doctor must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in order to apply to medical school.
While attending college, it is recommended that students consider volunteering a portion of their time at a medical-related facility or agency. In addition to gaining valuable experience, a student will develop personal characteristics such as work ethic, self-confidence and the ability to work under pressure. Surgeons are required to think fast, and remain calm under pressure. These are all traits a student can further develop when volunteering.
Once enrolled at medical school, a student must gain more advanced knowledge of subjects taken at the undergraduate level, such as anatomy, microbiology, pathology, biochemistry, psychology, medical law and ethics. Students will also be exposed to the basics of patient care in order to better understand the variety of specialties available, such as plastic surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, cardiovascular surgery, and many more.
Residency and Fellowships
Upon graduating from medical school, a future surgeon must earn their M.D. and become licensed before they can begin residency. Generally, a three-year residency will function as paid training to allow a student to begin a specialization, as well as work under the supervision of an experienced surgeon to gain the skills necessary to become a competent surgeon.
To obtain a Fellowship — F.A.C.S. (Fellow of the American College of Surgeons) a doctor must be board-certified as a surgeon. This indicates that the surgeon has passed an evaluation of both professional and ethical competence. Obtaining a Fellowship shows patients that a doctor is willing to place a patient’s welfare above any other considerations.
After finishing residency, a doctor is required to begin a multi-year internship in a surgery department at an accredited hospital. As a rule, a prospective intern must submit an application, dean’s report, transcript, and letters of recommendation to be considered for an internship. The duration of an internship is dependent upon which surgical specialty the doctor chooses.
Note: The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) dropped the term "intern" in 1975, instead referring to individuals in their first year of graduate medical school as “residents”. However, the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) continues to require osteopathic physicians (D.O.) to complete an internship before residency.
Nearly all Surgeons continue the education process throughout their careers to maintain competence and licensure, and to stay abreast of new and developing areas of their specialty, and stay informed of medical advances. Continuing education may be in the form of written publications, online programs, or at live events. Content for these programs is most often reviewed and developed by experts in specific clinical areas.
Understanding the Career Path of a Surgeon
Surgeons typically work in brightly lit sterile environments, such as an operating room in a hospital, or outpatient facility, while performing both scheduled and emergency surgery. Some surgeons also practice at teaching hospitals or in academic settings to help aspiring doctors sharpen their skills. Surgeons never perform an operation without a team of assistants or other surgeons present. Team-work can minimize patients' anxiety, and lessen stress for the surgeon.
A surgeon’s work-day tends to vary, based on practice or specialty, and setting, and usually involves research, patient interaction, and surgical performance.
Despite the fact that most surgeons are satisfied in their careers, and feel fulfilled by helping to improve the lives of their patients, surgeons can also face a number of on-the-job hazards. Here are just a few examples:
Surgeons may also find time to volunteer to organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders — providing care to people and communities without access to functioning health care systems. They may witness excessive burns, deformities, loss of limbs, and other traumas, and often practice where equipment and facilities needed to operated are limited, but the reward is great.
A surgeon’s salary will depend on his or her specialty, level of education, years of experience, and the state and environment where they practice. CNN Money reported that a general surgeon’s salary ranked second-place in the twenty highest paying jobs. A surgeon at John Hopkins Hospital estimates that the median pay for a general surgeon is between $260,000 and $412,000 annually.
Across all specialties and genders (female surgeons make forty-percent less than male surgeons in the same specialty) the salary range is much broader, with a median annual salary of $350,937. As a sampling, an orthopedic surgeon can make upwards of $600,000 per year. A Neurological surgeon will make between $287,000 and $637,000 annually, whereas a Cosmetic Surgeon can make up to $500,000 per year. The average Podiatric Surgeon’s salary reached $250,000 in 2012, while an Oral Surgeon’s mean annual salary topped out at $615,000.
The American Board of Surgery (ABS) offers board certification in general surgery, pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, surgical critical care, complex general surgical oncology, surgery of the hand, and hospice and palliative medicine. A few specialties require two exams for board certification. The ABS encourages surgeons to maintain certification in general surgery, as well as in their additional specialty. However, this is not required.
ABS certificates are valid for ten-years from the issue date. Once certified, a surgeon is automatically enrolled in the ABS Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program. He or she must fulfill the requirements of this program to maintain a certificate.
Employment of surgeons in all levels of expertise and training is estimated to grow eighteen-percent between 2012 and 2022. This faster-than-average job growth will occur because of the expansion of healthcare-related industries, as well as a growing, and aging population.