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What Is a General Surgeon?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

General surgeons are doctors who specialize in surgical procedures. Surgery is any procedure that alters body tissues to diagnose or treat a medical condition. A general surgeon is part of a surgical team that also includes an anesthesiologist, nurses, and surgical technicians. You’ll talk to the surgeon about the procedure prior to surgery.

What Does a General Surgeon Do?

Some surgeries require surgeons who specialize in certain things, like cardiac (heart) surgeons or neurosurgeons (brain surgeons), but not all. That’s why there are general surgeons.

A general surgeon has specialized knowledge of the entire surgical process, from the initial evaluation through preparation, procedure, and post-operative management. A general surgeon understands all nine basic areas of surgery, which are:

  • The digestive tract
  • The abdomen and its contents
  • The skin and soft tissue, including the breasts
  • The head and neck,
  • The blood vessels and heart
  • The endocrine system (hormones and glands)
  • Surgical treatment of cancer
  • Surgical management of traumatic injuries
  • Care of critically ill patients with surgical needs

Today, most general surgeons are familiar with minimally invasive techniques like laparoscopy. Laparoscopic surgeries involve much smaller tools, including tiny cameras that let the surgeon see what’s going on inside your body. These specialized instruments mean that the surgeon can make much smaller cuts than they would with traditional procedures.  

General surgeons have a broad knowledge of many different diseases and conditions. They will recommend whether you need surgery and what kind of surgery would be appropriate.

General surgeons know:

  • The body’s healthy structure and function
  • How wounds heal
  • How blood flows and clots
  • How the immune system functions
  • Infections and antibiotics

Because a general surgeon treats a wide variety of people and conditions, they have to meet unique needs.  

Education and Training

General surgeons are medical doctors who train specifically in the surgical treatment of illness and injury. In the US, most start by attending medical school, graduate with their MD degrees, and go on to complete surgical residencies before applying for board certification.

To enter practice as a general surgeon, a physician must complete the following:

  • At least five years of progressive residency in an accredited program
  • The General Surgery Qualifying Examination
  • The General Surgery Certifying Examination

A surgeon's residency has to fulfill many requirements. For example, every residency year must include at least 48 weeks of full-time work with patients, and they can spend no more than 12 months on any one specialty.   

After completing their residencies, general surgeons have seven years to pass their exams. Physicians who complete general surgery residencies may also go on to subspecialty training and certification in one of the following:

  • Vascular surgery
  • Pediatric surgery
  • Surgical critical care
  • Complex general surgical oncology
  • Hand surgery
  • Hospice and palliative medicine

Reasons to See a General Surgeon

Patients see a general surgeon in a wide variety of circumstances. Here are a few of the most common.

Your Doctor Recommends Surgery

If your doctor believes that non-surgical treatments won’t be enough, you may get a referral to a general surgeon.You may need to visit a surgeon when other treatments haven’t worked.

You’re Having a Medical Emergency

Because general surgeons have such broad knowledge, they perform a variety of emergency procedures. You may see a general surgeon if you have appendicitis, a hernia, gallstones, or even a gunshot wound.

You Choose an Elective Procedure

An elective surgery is any procedure that you and your doctor schedule in advance. Examples include tonsillectomies, which remove the tonsils at the back of the throat, and hemorrhoidectomies, which remove swollen veins in the rectum or anus. 

General surgeons perform many of these procedures.   

What to Expect with a General Surgeon

When you visit with a general surgeon, they’ll evaluate you to make sure surgery is the right option for you. They’ll explain the procedure and answer your questions about the procedure.

Your surgeon will tell you how to prepare for the operation, including:

  • Whether you need to take any tests
  • If you need to take or stop taking any medications
  • If you have to stop eating or drinking before the procedure

Your surgeon will also explain what to expect during your recovery. If your surgery requires a hospital stay, they should tell you how long you can expect to be in the hospital and what you will need once you go home.  

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

The American Board of Surgery: “Becoming certified in general surgery.”

The American Board of Surgery: “Specialty of General Surgery Defined.”

The American Board of Surgery: “Training Requirements.”

American College of Surgeons: “Definition of Surgery Legislative Toolkit.”

American College of Surgeons: “General Surgery.”

American College of Surgeons, Massachusetts Chapter: “How many surgical procedures will Americans experience in an average lifetime?”

American Medical Association: “Surgery, General Specialty Description.”

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