What Medical School Hopefuls Should Know About Types of Doctors

While there are many different types of physicians and medical specialties, the one thing all doctors share in common is a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their patients. The duty to provide high-quality health care is an obligation that unites all doctors, regardless of their specialty. Medical students often affirm their solemn duty to “do no harm” to patients by taking a pledge.

Dr. Howard Pryor, a pediatric surgeon who is both an instructor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and an assistant professor of surgery at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, says all doctors are entrusted with safeguarding the lives of the people they treat.

Pryor says that, in order for an aspiring doctor to be a good fit for his medical specialty, which involves operating on children, he or she must think of the job as a professional calling and find it difficult to imagine pursuing any other career. “I find it to be infinitely rewarding to perform operations that actually save a human lifetime,” he says. Pryor sometimes does surgeries on babies who would die without those procedures. Those surgeries — if done right — can allow sick children to grow up into healthy adults. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” he says.

[Read: Choose a Medical Career to Suit Your Personality.]

However, Dr. Julie Byerley, executive vice dean for education and chief education officer at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill School of Medicine, cautions that an interest in science or community service doesn’t necessarily warrant pursuing the rigorous training required for a physician.

“Medicine is the right career for a person who excels in both science and hands-on service and a person who can’t sacrifice either of those in their career,” she says. “There are a lot of ways to make the world a better place using your talents in science or service.”

Someone who is interested in advancing medical science but doesn’t particularly like the idea of providing medical treatments can elect to pursue a career as a non-physician research scientist, Byerley says. Anyone who likes the idea of performing public service and showing compassion can do so in a variety of fields besides medicine, including social work, education and nursing, she adds.

Though medicine is a demanding profession that requires years of training for entry, it can be a deeply fulfilling occupation for people who enjoy both science and service, Byerley says. “I think medicine is just an incredibly satisfying career where you have an opportunity to use your intellect, your communication skills and your hands to really make a long-term difference in the lives of patients and their families,” Byerley says.

She adds that the medical profession includes both generalists, like primary care physicians, and sub-specialists, such as doctors with expertise in specific organs and body systems and those who are masters at performing particular types of medical procedures.

[Read: Why You Should Target Med Schools With Strong Surgery Programs.]

Christian Essman, director of admissions at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, notes that there are over 120 medical specialties, so aspiring doctors have a variety of options. “Oftentimes incoming medical students have a specialty in mind as a first year medical student and end up choosing a completely different specialty by the time they graduate,” Essman wrote in an email. “Mentors in medical school and in the clinical setting can also play an influential role in helping students identify the career pathway best suited for them.”

Here are a few different types of doctors and their physician specialties:

Anesthesiologists: Doctors in this field provide sedatives, which allow surgery patients to lose consciousness. Anesthesiologists are also responsible for monitoring patients’ vital signs.

Radiologists: Doctors with this specialty look at medical images and check for signs of disease or injury.

Geriatricians: These types of doctors focus on treating seniors and addressing age-related diseases and functional impairments.

Orthopedic surgeons: These types of doctors treat musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis and scoliosis and repair bone and muscle injuries.

Psychiatrists: These experts address mental health issues via medication, therapy or a combination of these two strategies.

Obstetrician-gynecologists: These specialized doctors are experts on women’s health care issues who are often in charge of delivering babies.

Oncologists: These types of doctors focus on treating cancer patients using any of these common techniques, such as radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, hormone therapy, stem cell transplants and genetically based precision medicine.

Urologists: These types of doctors treat urinary system disorders, pelvic organ prolapse, infertility issues, prostate problems and kidney stones.

Pathologists: Doctors in this field analyze blood and tissue samples in order to diagnose illnesses and examine corpses to determine causes of death.

Neurologists: Physicians within this specialty treat medical conditions that affect the brain and nervous system.

Dr. Dean C. Mitchell, an immunologist who is a clinical assistant professor at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, says technological progress and scientific discoveries are enabling doctors to save the lives of sick people who might have died otherwise. Mitchell says one of the miracles of modern medicine is that doctors can now ease the symptoms of potentially fatal health problems where diagnoses were previously regarded as death sentences. An example of a medical problem that was once intractable but is now manageable is the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, he adds.

[See: 10 Mistakes That Can Keep You Out of Medical School.]

Doctors have gotten better at addressing both genetic diseases and aggressive cancers through personalized therapies, Mitchell says. An important aspect of being a good doctor is constantly reading medical journals and staying up to date on the latest evidence-based therapies, he adds.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Anthony Youn, the author of the memoir “Playing God: The Evolution of a Modern Surgeon,” which will be released in September, says that the working conditions of doctors can vary depending on their medical specialty.

Youn says there are significant salary discrepancies and quality of life differences between medical specialties. “For example, if you are a pathologist, you will most likely be an employee of a hospital with set hours, vacation time and benefits,” he wrote in an email. “If you are a cardiac surgeon, most likely you will be part of a group of surgeons, and the amount of time you spend at work and on call will be based on the practice you are in.”

“Many infectious disease doctors are now hospital employees, since it’s difficult to make a living as a solo practitioner in this field, ” Youn adds. “Each specialty is different and each position is different.”

Dr. Rena D. Malik, a urologist who is the director of female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says aspiring doctors should enter medical school “with an open mind” and a willingness to explore a variety of medical specialties.

“I never thought I would be a surgeon and definitely not a urologist, but I found the field so compelling that I decided to pursue it,” Malek wrote in an email. “It always helps to learn about the variety of specialties available to you in medical school but you have to like the basics — taking care of people.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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What Medical School Hopefuls Should Know About Types of Doctors originally appeared on usnews.com

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