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What's The Difference Between A Doctor And A Medic?

What’s The Difference Between A Doctor And A Medic?

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

The terms doctor and medic are frequently used in reference to various healthcare professionals. However, is there actually a difference between the two terms or do they mean the same thing?

A doctor is a healthcare professional who has completed a medical degree at university. A medic is a more general term that broadly refers to anyone working in medicine, such as a physician, medical student, paramedic or emergency medical responder. The terms are also often used interchangeably.

One of the challenges of nailing down the exact difference between a doctor and a medic is the fact that ‘medic’ can refer to a few different types of healthcare professionals!

To get to the bottom of the issue, I’m going to first give you my understanding of the two terms (as a practising doctor in the UK) before really exploring how the two jobs diverge.

What Is A Doctor?

First up, what definition of a doctor am I talking about?

In the UK, to be classed as a (medical) doctor you have to graduate from a medicine degree at a recognised university.

A doctor examining an elderly patient

So that means five-plus years at medical school and passing your medical finals. Nothing to be sniffed at, but from that point onwards you are officially a doctor.

Now you can of course also get the title ‘doctor’ by completing a doctorate (a.k.a. PhD)- but that’s not the type of doctor I’ll be talking about when comparing ‘doctors’ to ‘medics.’

What Is A Medic?

So, on to the trickier of the two terms. What actually is a medic?

Now, I say trickier because of the fact that medic can actually have a few different definitions depending on how you’re using the term.

Medic can mean:

  • A doctor who works in a medical specialty (a.k.a. a physician)
  • A specific job role in the military
  • Anyone who’s involved in medicine as their profession

You can see how with such a variety of definitions there’s going to be a wide variety of ways that a ‘medic’ can differ from a doctor- depending on what exactly you meant by the term ‘medic.’

I’m going to work through each definition in turn, so however you meant it you’ll be able to get your answer.

Medic As A Doctor Who Works In A Medical Specialty

Doctors actually broadly divide themselves into two categories depending on what area of medicine they decide to specialise in.

If you choose to specialise in a ‘medical’ specialty then you’re a ‘medic’ and if you specialise in a ‘surgical’ specialty then you’re a ‘surgeon.’

I know it doesn’t make much sense doctors (who are inherently medical) specialising in ‘medical’ specialties to become ‘medics.’

But bear with me.

Medical specialties are areas of medicine that as a broad rule, rarely require a patient to undergo surgery. So these are areas such:

  • Cardiology
  • Rheumatology
  • Nephrology
  • Respiratory
  • Endocrinology

It’s very rare that someone with a medical problem (such as diabetes) will need to undergo an operation to treat their condition.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got your surgical specialties. These are things like:

  • Neurosurgery
  • Orthopaedics
  • General surgery
  • Plastic surgery
  • Transplant surgery

In these specialties the patients will almost always need an operation to help treat their disease.

Using this definition, there’s really not a huge difference between a doctor and a medic.

Here, a medic is a doctor who’s chosen to specialise in a medical specialty; whereas a doctor is a wider term that applies to any doctor regardless of their chosen specialty.

Medic As A Member Of The Military

The second definition I want cover is that of the military medic.

These are the guy who you see wounded soldiers shouting to in the movies: “Medic!” “Medic!” “Mediiiic!”

Most commonly, this wouldn’t be a doctor the soldier’s shouting to and who treats them first.

This medic is actually another soldier who’s just undergone specialist training to give them more medical knowledge.

In the British Army, they’re referred to as combat medical technicians.

The doctor is generally a bit further back from the front line set up with a bit more equipment to help the wounded.

Military medics calling in a helicopter for a wounded soldier

Medics in the military don’t really have a civilian counterpart in terms of the skills they have.

They’re experts at prehospital trauma care (as you’d expect) but can sometimes lack in the more conceptual knowledge required to see deal with patients in a primary healthcare setting. Doctors on the other hand generally have a bit of wider-ranging expertise.

A medic’s main difference from a doctor is that they’re not professionally qualified.

Instead of being a healthcare professional who happens to work in the military, they’re soldiers who’ve been up-skilled to be able to deliver advanced emergency care.

Find out how to become an Army doctor here.

Medic As Anyone Who’s Involved In Medicine

Lastly, the broadest definition of a medic is pretty much anyone who’s involved in medicine in a professional capacity.

So this could be anyone from a paramedic to a medical student to a first responder.

It’s a very wide net that essentially captures anyone who helps and treats patients.

Under this definition, a doctor would also be a medic.

With such a wide variety of professions captured under the term, the only real way to define their differences then is to say that a doctor has to have that medical degree that gives them the title of doctor.

A medic can be anyone working within ‘medicine.’

Otherwise, both doctors and medics work to relieve the suffering of patients and diagnose and treat disease.

Summary Of The Differences Between Doctors And Medics

To summarise, I thought I’d compare two amalgamated definitions of both doctors and medics.

As they’re most commonly used, how would the two jobs differ?

A doctor:

  • Is a professionally qualified healthcare professional
  • Focusses on the diagnosis and treatment of patients
  • Can prescribe medication
  • Generally works either in a GP practice or hospital
  • Frequently leads a multidisciplinary team of healthcare workers
  • Acts to direct patient care

Whereas a medic:

  • Isn’t professionally registered
  • May have very specific knowledge about their area of expertise
  • Can work both inside and outside of hospitals
  • Can be wide-ranging in their professional expertise

Both work in medicine and both will always put the patient first. Their differences are just about the qualifications and backgrounds they have to enter the medical field.

Final Thoughts

As a doctor myself, I’ll frequently offhandedly refer to myself as a medic if asked what I do for a living.

The terms are broadly used interchangeably in the UK.

However, if I was working in hospital and one of my colleagues was talking about ‘the medics’ coming to review a patient, I’d know they were talking about other doctors from a medical specialty.

The two terms are difficult to differentiate, because of the huge amount of overlap between them and their colloquial uses, but hopefully now you’ve got a much better understanding of how they’re used in British healthcare.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.