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Choosing Your Medical Specialty

All physicians must have residency training in a particular medical specialty, and many practicing physicians go on to specialize in a particular area of medicine. The most frequently entered specialties, as derived from National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) data, are listed below. (See also the National Medical Specialty Societies Web page.)

Emergency medicine

American College of Emergency Physicians
An emergency physician focuses on the immediate decision making and action necessary to prevent death or any further disability both in the prehospital setting by directing emergency medical technicians and in the emergency department. The emergency physician provides immediate recognition, evaluation, care, stabilization, and disposition of a generally diversified population of adult and pediatric patients in response to acute illness and injury.

Family practice

American Academy of Family Physicians
A family physician is concerned with the total health care of the individual and the family and is trained to diagnose and treat a wide variety of ailments in patients of all ages. The family physician receives a broad range of training that includes internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, and geriatrics. Special emphasis is placed on prevention and the primary care of entire families, utilizing consultations and community resources when appropriate.

Internal medicine

American College of Physicians
An internist provides long-term, comprehensive care in the office and the hospital, managing both common and complex illness of adolescents, adults, and the elderly. Internists are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, infections, and diseases affecting the heart, blood, kidneys, joints, and digestive, respiratory, and vascular systems. They are also trained in the essentials of primary care internal medicine, which incorporates an understanding of disease prevention, wellness, substance abuse, mental health, and effective treatment of common problems of the eyes, ears, skin, nervous system, and reproductive organs.

Obstetrics-gynecology

American Congress of Obstetrics & Gynecology
Obstetrics and Gynecology is a diverse and vibrant specialty that utilizes both medical and surgical skills to address specialized aspects of women’s health during the female life cycle, including the pre-pubertal, reproductive, and post-menopausal years. Practitioners take care of women of all ages and all conditions in office and ambulatory care settings, as well as in prenatal, labor and delivery, and postpartum environments. Ob-Gyns perform surgical procedures requested in well-woman care, as well as those necessitated by obstetric emergencies and gynecologic pathology. The specialty offers flexibility in on-call scheduling and working hours, as well as variety in practice scope and style, including part-time practice, office-only gynecology, hospital inpatient care, large group practice and academic faculty practice. Subspecialty training opportunities are equally diverse. Gynecologic Oncologists manage cancers of the reproductive tract – surgery, adjuvant therapy and palliative care. Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgeons focus on disorders of the genitourinary system and defects of pelvic support. Reproductive Endocrinologists alleviate hormonal and infertility problems through the use of advanced reproductive technologies. Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialists concentrate on high-risk obstetric care and medical complications of pregnancy, prenatal diagnosis and ultrasonography, as well as fetal procedures. Obstetrician-gynecologists are the physicians of women’s health.

Orthopedic surgeon

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
An orthopedic surgeon is trained in the preservation, investigation, and restoration of the form and function of the extremities, spine, and associated structures by medical, surgical, and physical means. An orthopedic surgeon is involved with the care of patients whose musculoskeletal problems include congenital deformities, trauma, infections, tumors, metabolic disturbances of the musculoskeletal system, deformities, injuries, and degenerative diseases of the spine, hands, feet, knee, hip, shoulder, and elbow in children and adults. An orthopedic surgeon is also concerned with primary and secondary muscular problems and the effects of central or peripheral nervous system lesions of the musculoskeletal system.

Pediatrics

American Academy of Pediatrics
Pediatricians provide preventive health maintenance for healthy children and medical care for those who are seriously or chronically ill. Physicians trained in pediatrics are experts in emotional and behavioral assessment and can be powerful advocates for troubled children and adolescents. Pediatricians are often the first and best advocates for children who suffer the sequelae of increasingly prevalent psychosocial morbidities, such as homelessness, family violence, and substance abuse. In caring for children's physical health, pediatricians diagnose and treat infections, injuries, genetic defects, malignancies, and many types of organic disease and dysfunction. They work to reduce infant and child mortality, control infectious disease, foster healthy lifestyles, and ease the day-to-day difficulties of children and adolescents with chronic conditions.

Psychiatry

American Psychiatric Association
A psychiatrist specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, addictive, and emotional disorders such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-related disorders, sexual and gender identity disorders, and adjustment disorders. The psychiatrist is able to understand the biologic, psychologic, and social components of illness and, therefore, is uniquely prepared to treat the whole person. A psychiatrist is qualified to order diagnostic laboratory tests and to prescribe medications, evaluate and treat psychologic and interpersonal problems, and intervene with families who are coping with stress, crises, and other problems in living.

Surgery

American College of Surgeons
A surgeon manages a broad spectrum of surgical conditions affecting almost any area of the body. The surgeon establishes the diagnosis and provides the preoperative, operative, and postoperative care to surgical patients and is usually responsible for the comprehensive management of the trauma victim and the critically ill surgical patient. The surgeon uses a variety of diagnostic techniques, including endoscopy, for observing internal structures, and may use specialized instruments during operative procedures. A general surgeon is expected to be familiar with the main features of other surgical specialties in order to recognize problems in those areas and to know when to refer a patient to another specialist.

—Many of the definitions used in this section were derived from Which Medical Specialist for You, a publication of the American Board of Medical Specialties.