What Is a Physician?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
3 min read

A physician is a general term for a doctor who has earned a medical degree. Physicians work to maintain, promote, and restore health by studying, diagnosing, and treating injuries and diseases.

Physicians generally have six core skills:

  1. Patient care. Physicians have to provide compassionate, appropriate, and effective care to promote health and treat health problems in their patients. 
  2. Medical knowledge. Physicians must be experts in established and new biomedical, clinical, and cognate sciences and how to apply this knowledge to patient care.
  3. Practice-based learning and improvement. Physicians must always investigate and evaluate their own care and look for ways to improve.
  4. Interpersonal and communication skills. Physicians must be able to communicate effectively with patients, their families, and other health professionals.
  5. Professionalism. A commitment to professionalism includes carrying out professional responsibilities, sticking to ethical principles, and being sensitive to a diverse patient population.
  6. Systems-based practice. Physicians must be aware of and responsive to the larger context and system of health care. They must also be able to find and use resources to provide the best care possible.

Physicians diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. Other responsibilities include: 

  • Giving advice on diet, hygiene, and preventative care
  • Examining patients
  • Prescribing medications
  • Ordering, giving, and interpreting diagnostic tests 
  • Taking and keeping medical histories

There are generally two types of physicians: medical doctors (MD) and doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO). They use the same methods of treatment, including drugs and surgery, but DOs also focus on the body’s musculoskeletal system, preventative medicine, and holistic patient care. 

Some specific types of physicians include:

Physicians spend several years studying and working as interns or residents before becoming certified doctors. Depending on the type of physician, this process can take between 7 and 15 years. The stages of becoming a physician are:

Before medical school

Students interested in becoming doctors take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Medical school applicants also need an undergraduate degree, usually in a science-related field.

Medical school

In general, medical school takes about 4 years. Students learn about science, innovations in treatments and diagnosis, problem-solving, prevention and care, communication skills, and medical ethics. 

Deciding where to focus

During the last year of medical school, students decide which type of medicine they will practice based on personal interests, clinical experiences, and other factors. They apply for a residency program in their chosen field. 

Residency training

During graduate medical education (GME), resident physicians receive supervised, hands-on training in programs accredited by the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education. Residents train alongside established doctors in a variety of settings and with a diverse pool of patients.

Continuing medical education

Before they can practice medicine, a physician needs a state license. They can also choose to become board certified in their chosen specialty. Because the medical field is constantly changing, they must continue their education and stay up-to-date on technologies and trends.

The most common type of physician is a primary care physician, also known as a family doctor. They’re trained to treat a little bit of everything and coordinate care in one location. Some of the most common issues that they handle are:

  • Circulatory issues like hypertension and high blood pressure
  • Diabetes, metabolic diseases, and immunity disorders
  • Ear infections
  • Migraines
  • Pink eye
  • Infections and parasitic diseases
  • Joint disorders or muscle aches
  • Mental disorders like attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression, or anxiety
  • Physical injury or poisoning
  • Respiratory issues like asthma, bronchitis, or sinusitis
  • Skin rashes or bumps
  • Bladder or urinary tract infections (UTIs)