What does a Surgeon do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A surgeon spends most of his or her time either planning for or executing surgeries — medical procedures that involve cutting into patients to repair and diagnose internal problems. Surgeons typically start out practicing general surgery but may choose to specialize still further — focusing only on brains, hearts, or pediatrics, for instance. Their day-to-day life tends to vary based on practice area and setting, but usually involves a combination of patient interaction, research, and actual surgical performance. These sorts of medical professionals are some of the most elite and highly paid in part because of the substantial schooling and training their job requires. There is often also a lot of risk, as not even true experts can anticipate all possibilities and patient reactions.

Some surgeons work as members of a hospital staff.
Some surgeons work as members of a hospital staff.

Basic Job Description

A surgeon’s main job is to treat medical conditions through internal repairs. The tasks that need to be performed are usually determined by the doctor’s specialty, but all involve cutting into a patient, opening his or her body to expose potential problems, fixing or at least diagnosing those problems, then stitching things back up.

Surgeons almost always work as just part of a larger medical team.
Surgeons almost always work as just part of a larger medical team.

In nearly all cases, surgeons work as part of a medical team. They rely on an anesthesiologist to keep the patient asleep and stable; surgical nurses and assistants also help by monitoring the surgical site, passing the surgeon any tools as required, and keeping track of the patient’s vital signs, among other things. For complicated procedures surgeons often work together to do more work in less time, and in teaching hospitals interns and residents are usually paired with more experienced surgeons to observe and learn techniques.

A surgeon’s main job is to treat medical conditions through internal repairs.
A surgeon’s main job is to treat medical conditions through internal repairs.

Types of Work and Specialties

In most places, surgeons can choose to work as a staff surgeon in a hospital or as a private practice caregiver. Excepting superficial procedures, nearly all surgeries are performed in hospital operating rooms — the different usually comes with affiliation and funding sources. Private practice doctors tend to enjoy a bit more flexibility, as they can choose their patients and their schedules with a bit more ease; at the same time, though, they usually have more liability and their patient flow can be less stable.

Surgeons rely on anesthesiologists and other staff to prepare the patient for surgery.
Surgeons rely on anesthesiologists and other staff to prepare the patient for surgery.

Surgeons in nearly all parts of the world are trained first to be generalists able to perform nearly any basic procedure. Hospitals often staff general surgery teams to handle routine needs like appendectomies, cesarean deliveries, and benign tumor removals. More complex procedures are usually sent directly to specialists.

There are many different surgical specialties to choose from, though some of the most popular are neurosurgery, cardiothoracics, orthopedics, and plastics. Each comes with its own special set of responsibilities and skills, and specialists are usually responsible for keeping up with the latest research and trends in their area of expertise. Specialists may also seek to publish their own discoveries or findings in medical journals or books.

Emergency Surgery

In ideal circumstances, surgery is planned. Patients with known conditions are referred to surgical experts who will review their files and schedule a mutually agreeable surgery date. Similarly, people who are choosing elective surgery — usually for cosmetic or non-life threatening reasons — are often able to tailor procedures around their personal schedules. In some cases, though, the need for internal repairs arises must faster, necessitating what is known as emergency surgery. In emergency situations, surgeons must quickly step in to treat immediate problems with little or no preparation. This requires a lot of fast thinking and an ability to work under pressure.

Communication With Family and Others

While most of a surgeon’s work happens within an operating room, the doctor also has obligations to the patient and his or her family when it comes to weighing the available options, including frank discussions of outcomes and common complications. In most cases, the doctor’s role is simply facts presentation. Though he or she may be excited to perform a specific procedure, it is usually up to the patient to decide — the surgeon’s job is to present the different possibilities, not persuade the patient to take any particular course. Even life-saving surgery is usually a choice — patients who are terminal or who decide that the risks are too great may decline procedures, which surgeons must accept gracefully.

Working Conditions

Many surgeons work very long hours, and those who are based in hospitals are typically scheduled on round-the-clock shifts. Even doctors who work in private practice or on a consultation-only basis spend long hours on their feet in the operating room, and are expected to collaborate with a wide range of health care professionals to ensure that their procedures run smoothly. In most cases, surgeons are responsible for managing a lot of paperwork, from processing patient files to reviewing records and arranging for insurance billing when needed.

Special Skills and Training Required

A lot of training usually goes into making a surgeon. In addition to regular medical schooling, which can take anywhere from four to eight years depending on the system, practitioners must also complete a surgical internship and residency; training for a specialty often takes a few years on top of this. Most countries require their surgeons to periodically sit for exams and demonstrate their proficiencies in order to maintain licenses and certifications.

A surgeon may want to discuss a surgical procedure with a patient beforehand.
A surgeon may want to discuss a surgical procedure with a patient beforehand.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


this article helped me so much. First of all it helped me with my career report. Yay! secondly, i was considering being a surgeon but i wasn't sure, this really helped confirm it for me. Thanks!


just made my day better. now i know what it takes.


this helped me with what i want to become. i wanted to be something in the medical field but couldn't find out what that something was. reading this article made me want to become a surgeon.


thanks. this article really helped in my career essay.


thanks. this really helped me on my project. thanks.


this helped me!


Thank you. it really helped me with my career essay.


I'm really young! So gives me an idea of what the job will be all about.


I liked it. it helped me with my careers homework.


this helped me with my career project.


Thanks for this great article. it helped me and others.


Cool article. it helped me a lot with my career project. Thanks(:


i am going to be a surgeon inshaallah! :)))


sweet article!!!

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