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Article: Doctors


This article covers the following types of doctor:

  • Anaesthetist
  • Forensic Pathologist
  • General Practitioner
  • Psychiatrist
  • Surgeon.

The career descriptions are only a brief summary. You should find out more about the careers that interest you.


Doctors use their knowledge of medicine to prevent, diagnose and treat ill-health.

There are very many types of doctor, with over 60 specialist areas (specialties). Broadly, the two main types of doctor are

  • general practitioner (or family doctor)
  • hospital doctor.

Hospital doctors can have many specialties, including

  • accident and emergency
  • cardiology
  • oncology
  • pathology
  • anaesthetics
  • surgery
  • psychiatry.

For most doctors, contact with patients is an essential part of the role. Apart from treatment, they give the patient information, advice, support and reassurance.

Most doctors share broadly similar methods and approaches. A doctor is a bit like a detective, putting together pieces of evidence so they can make a diagnosis. They have to examine the patient, note symptoms, test their diagnosis, decide on the best form of treatment and then keep careful track of the patient's progress.

Sometimes, it will be enough to give advice, for example, to rest for a few days. Or, the doctor might prescribe a medicine for the patient to take. With serious illnesses, the doctor might refer the patient for surgery or a treatment such as radiotherapy.

Doctors are usually part of a team, working alongside people such as nurses, midwives, therapists, radiographers and other types of doctor.


Here are just some of the many specialist roles (specialties) a doctor can become involved in.


Anaesthetists are experts on anaesthetics, which are things that stop us feeling pain during operations. Apart from surgery, they are involved in areas such as long-term pain management, and intensive care.

They are part of a team, working with surgeons, nurses and operating department practitioners.

Before the operation, they examine the patient in a pre-assessment clinic to make sure they are fit for surgery. They discuss the type of anaesthetic they will use and how they will control pain.

They might give the anaesthetic as a drop, spray, ointment or injection. Or, the patient might breathe in gases through a mask. With a local or regional anaesthetic, the patient is awake but feels no pain. With a general anaesthetic, they are unconscious.

During the operation, anaesthetists must keep a close eye on the patient. They use equipment to check things such as heart rate and blood pressure. Immediately after the operation, they continue to monitor the patient's progress, until it is safe for the patient to be taken to a ward.

General Practitioner

General practitioners (GPs) give medical advice and treatment to people living in the local area. They usually see patients in their office at the surgery, although they might also do emergency home visits.

GPs listen carefully as patients describe their symptoms, for example, where they feel pain and for how long they have been experiencing this.

The GP might need to ask careful questions to draw out more information from the patient. They will also look at notes on the patient's medical history: these are usually kept on a computer.

Then, they might need to physically examine the patient. This can include listening to their heart, looking into their ears or throat, and taking their blood pressure. GPs use various instruments and types of equipment during physical examinations.

Sometimes, GPs must refer the patient to a specialist consultant at hospital for further tests, if they are unable to make a diagnosis.

GPs give their patients information, advice and reassurance. Treatment could be through a prescription or minor surgery. Sometimes, GPs have to refer patients to hospital for treatment.


Psychiatrists are doctors who care for and treat people with mental health problems. They deal with issues such as depression, panic attacks, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and severe mental illness.

First, they find out what the patient's symptoms are, and study notes on their medical and mental health history. They ask the patient careful questions to find out more. They work with people such as GPs and mental health social workers to make a diagnosis.

Psychiatrists can treat patients in a number of ways, including through drugs, counselling and 'talking treatments' such as cognitive behavioural therapy.


Surgeons operate on patients in hospital. They work very skilfully with their hands, using a range of instruments, techniques and types of equipment.

They also use their specialist knowledge of medical and scientific areas such as anatomy, pathology and physiology.

Apart from operating, surgeons spend time talking to and reassuring patients. They explain the need for surgery, the process and risks involved, and the chances of success. Surgeons also help to manage the care of the patient after the operation.

Most surgeons specialise in a particular area of surgery, such as heart, brain or plastic surgery.

Forensic Pathologist

Forensic pathologists are medical doctors who find out how and why people have died. They do this when there is a suspicion that someone hasn't died from natural causes.

At the scene of a suspected crime, they can see the body for the first time. They supervise people who collect evidence such as samples of blood or tissues.

When they get back from the crime scene, forensic pathologists carry out an autopsy. This involves cutting into the body to look at organs such as the brain, heart, stomach, lungs and liver.

They might find signs of injury inside the body, such as stab wounds or internal bleeding. The autopsy can involve taking samples for DNA testing, and toxicological tests to see whether poisoning was the cause of death.

After they have finished the autopsy, they put all the organs back inside the body and carefully sew it up again. They can then let the coroner know their findings. Forensic pathologists report to the police and might have to give evidence in court.

How do I become a doctor?

Medicine degrees

To become a doctor, you must usually take a five-year degree course in medicine.

Having a serious communicable disease such as HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C shouldn't stop you from studying medicine; however, it could affect what type of doctor you can eventually become. Students/doctors with serious communicable diseases are not allowed to perform exposure prone procedures (EPPs). These involve a risk that the disease could be passed on to the patient. However, the General Medical Council (GMC) does not require medical students to take part in EPPs. You can find further information and advice on the website of the British Medical Association (BMA).

On a traditional medicine course, students spend the first two years in 'pre-clinical study' of the basic medical sciences. The next three years of 'clinical' study involve periods of clinical practice in hospital wards and GPs' clinics, as well as lectures on all aspects of medical practice.

However, most universities now have integrated courses. These combine academic learning and clinical placements throughout the five years of the course. You should check prospectuses and think carefully about which type of course you would prefer.

Some university medical schools run medicine degrees with a 'pre-medical' or 'foundation' year, giving students with good grades in non-science A levels the opportunity to study a foundation year in basic science.

Six-year 'widening access' courses encourage more people to study medicine. These are available at a small number of universities. Entry requirements vary; for example, entry might be only for people from certain disadvantaged areas. While the academic entry requirements are lower than for five-year degrees, students cover the same topics, in the same detail. The extra year allows for greater support and a slower pace. Please contact the BMA for more information.

Entry to medicine degree courses is possible for graduates, usually with first or upper second class degrees. You should check with universities to see if your first degree subject is acceptable.

A small number of universities run four-year, fast-track medicine courses for graduates. You'll usually need a first degree in a relevant subject, such as a science, although some courses are for graduates in any subject. The BMA has a list of these courses and the universities that offer them.

Foundation Years

After graduating from your degree course, you will need to complete Foundation Year 1 (F1). The aim of F1 is for you to build on the knowledge and skills you have gained during your degree course. You will qualify for full registration with the GMC when you have successfully completed F1.

Foundation Year 2 (F2) continues general training in medicine and also involves a range of specialties that could include general practice. By the end of F2, you should be able to demonstrate that you are competent in areas such as managing acutely ill patients.

Specialty and general practice training

After successfully completing F2, you will train in a specialist area of medicine or in general practice. The length of this training depends on the area you choose - for example, GP training takes three years, while general surgery training takes eight years.

Further Information

Royal College of Psychiatrists

Address: 17 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PG

Tel: 020 7235 2351



Royal College of Psychiatrists Scotland

Scottish enquiries

Address: 12 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JE

Tel: 0131 2202910



British Medical Association (BMA)

Address: BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP

Tel: 020 7387 4499


BMJ Careers

Address: BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP

Tel: 020 7387 4410



British Medical Association (BMA) Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Enquiries

Address: 16 Cromac Place, Cromac Wood, Ormeau Road, Belfast BT7 2JB

Tel: 028 9026 9666



Money 4 MedStudents

Address: 24 King's Road, Wimbledon, London SW19 8QN

Tel: 020 8545 8443



British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland

Scottish enquiries

Address: 14 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1LL

Tel: 0131 2473000



British Medical Journal (BMJ)


Getting into Medical School 2014 Entry

Author: Simon Horner Publisher: Trotman

The Essential Guide to Becoming a Doctor

Authors: Adrian Blundell, Richard Harrison, Benjamin W. Turney Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Scottish Medical Training (SMT)

Scottish enquiries



British Medical Association (BMA) Wales

Welsh enquiries

Address: 5th Floor, 2 Caspian Point, Caspian Way, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff CF10 4DQ

Tel: 029 2047 4646



Royal College of Pathologists

Address: 2 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AF

Tel: 020 7451 6700



Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP)

Address: 30 Euston Square, London NW1 2FB

Tel: 020 3188 7400


Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS)

Address: 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE

Tel: 020 7405 3474



Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency (NIMDTA)

Northern Ireland Enquiries

Address: Beechill House, 42 Beechill Road, Belfast BT8 7RL

Tel: 028 9040 0000



Royal College of Anaesthetists

Address: Churchill House, 35 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4SG

Tel: 020 7092 1500



Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Scotland

Scottish enquiries

Address: 25 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JX

Tel: 0131 2606800



Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd)

Scottish enquiries

Address: Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DW

Tel: 0131 5271600



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