Originally published on Patch.com

As medicine has become more advanced, the associated knowledge and skill base has grown too large to be managed by general practitioners. Thus, specialists have evolved and branched off so that each trained professional can learn a specific field in detail. This is true in surgery as in other areas of medicine. No longer is the same physician operating on the brain and the intestines. Specialists can be found for different body systems or problems.  Each subspecialty of surgery has its own training requirements and credentialing board.  



Cardio-Thoracic Surgeons

Cardiothoracic surgeons are sometimes called cardiac surgeons, CT surgeons, chest surgeons or heart surgeons. They operate on the heart, lungs and other structures in the chest. In practice, these doctors may sub-specialize and focus on just the heart or lungs. Some will choose to devote themselves to pediatric hearts, transplantation or other narrowed areas of interest.


The road to become a cardiothoracic surgeon is a long, strenuous and stressful one. After medical school, each future CT surgeon must complete a residency in general surgery that is usually five years long. After this, a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery takes three years. After that, further specialization may be pursued requiring additional years of training.


General Surgeons

General surgeons provide a wide variety of services. They operate mainly on structures in the abdomen and pelvis but may also perform such surgeries as thyroidectomies or mastectomies. Some general surgeons, especially in smaller hospitals, perform operations that are often done by specialist surgeons elsewhere, such as vascular surgery procedures. As sub-specialization has progressed, it is less likely for a general surgeon to perform these types of operations. More often, surgeons who have had formal advanced training in these procedures, such as CT surgeons and vascular surgeons, perform them.


General surgeons are the doctors you see if your appendix or gall bladder must come out, if you have to have a biopsy, or if you have diseases or cancer of the intestines or stomach. Sometimes, they perform emergency, life-saving surgery. For example, a perforated intestine or a bleeding stomach ulcer may present imminent danger and a general surgeon will be called to fix it.


After medical school, general surgeons train in residency for five years before they are eligible to become board-certified surgeons. The residency years are intense, the hours are long, and the training is mentally and physically draining.


Head and Neck Surgeons

The formal name for a head and neck surgeon is otolaryngologist. They were traditionally called “Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Doctors”, but “Head and Neck Surgeon” describes their role more accurately.


These are the doctors that most people know to put in ear tubes and take out tonsils. But, they do much more complex surgeries, as well. For example, they may operate on the thyroid gland or do very intricate and lengthy surgeries to remove cancers from the mouth, throat or neck. Head and neck surgeons train for five years, usually one in general surgery and the remaining four in their specialty.



Neurosurgeons are some of the most highly trained professionals in medicine. They operate on sensitive structures like the brain and spinal cord. The stakes are very high in these types of surgeries, and the outcome can change a patient’s life forever in very profound ways. 


Training to learn to do these delicate, lengthy and serious operations requires extreme dedication. Neurosurgery residency typically lasts seven years, with the possibility of continued fellowship training to follow. Neurosurgeons --brain surgeons-- work long, hard hours with some surgeries lasting over 10 hours. Working on tiny structures in the brain while looking through microscopes or special magnifying eyepieces demands stamina and meticulous attention to detail.



Ob-Gyns, as these doctors are frequently called, specialize in treating women throughout their reproductive lives. Ob-Gyns deliver babies as one of their best-known tasks. However, cesarean sections are not the only surgeries that Ob-Gyns perform. They also do hysterectomies, laparoscopic surgeries, tumor removal operations and many other related procedures. Obstetrics and gynecology residencies are four years long, starting after medical school.



Ophthalmologists are eye doctors with a medical degree (M.D.) who complete four years of specialized postgraduate training. They treat some eye problems with medicine, but they also perform surgery on or in the eye. Cataract surgery is a commonly performed, relatively minor procedure. Ophthalmologists also perform more invasive and lengthy surgeries. For example, they surgically treat strabismus and other eye problems in children. Removal of tumors from the eye, vision correction surgery, and treating people with eye injuries are also included in an ophthalmologist’s duties.


Oral Surgeons

Oral and maxillofacial surgeons train a little differently than most surgeons. Oral surgeons complete dental school and then go on to complete a residency in surgery, which is at least another four years. Some choose to get a medical degree along with their dental degree.


These specialists can perform dental surgery as well as other surgeries of the mouth and jaw. Oral surgeons also treat facial deformities involving the jaw.


Orthopedic Surgeons

Orthopedic surgeons are the "bone docs". They care for problems of the musculoskeletal system, including the bones, muscles, joints and supporting structures. Orthopedic procedures include such varied procedures as carpal tunnel surgery, arthroscopic joint surgery, joint replacement and spine surgery.


Orthopedic surgery residency is five years long, the first year of which may be spent in general surgery. Orthopedic surgery residencies are competitive and attract some of the most academically successful medical students.


Pediatric Surgeons

The human body changes as it grows. A child’s physiology – the way its body works -- is different in many ways from that of an adult. The pediatric surgeon must understand this as they operate on even the smallest patients. From emergency surgery after birth, through the teenage years, the pediatric surgeon takes care of kids when they need an operation.


After completing a five-year general surgery residency, the pediatric surgeon must follow with three years of pediatric surgery training.


Plastic Surgeons

Most people are familiar with the work of plastic surgeons. These specialists perform a large range of elective surgeries that improve a person's appearance.


But, plastic surgeons also help people who are disfigured due to illness, prior surgery or accidents. They usually train for three years in general surgery, followed by three years of plastic surgery.


Trauma Surgeons

Trauma surgeons perform surgery required to treat traumatic injuries. This stressful and fast-paced field deals regularly with life and death emergencies. Trauma surgeons may find themselves removing impaled objects, treating crash victims or opening up the chest and abdominal cavities to try to save someone's life if they are bleeding internally from their injuries.


Trauma surgeons finish a general surgery residency and then complete a three-year fellowship.



Urologists operate to help correct problems of the urologic and genital systems. They do vasectomies, cystoscopies to look into the bladder and ureters, remove kidney stones, and perform other procedures and surgeries. Urologists also treat cancers of the bladder, prostate and kidneys.  These doctors see more male patients than female, but also treat women with bladder or urinary problems.


Urology training begins right after medical school and lasts about six years.


Vascular Surgeons

Vascular surgery training may be done in one of two ways. Some programs start directly after medical school and continue for the next five to seven years. Other vascular surgeons have done all five years of general surgery, and then pursued vascular surgery for the ensuing two years. Vascular surgeons specialize in operating on blood vessels. From removing varicose veins to repairing a ruptured aorta, vascular surgeons treat a wide range of problems on the miles of blood vessels in the body.


Finding the right doctor can be a daunting exercise. But, knowing that your physician has years of intense education and advanced training for your situation makes it well worth the effort.

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