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

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.

Doctors and surgeons are both healthcare professionals who work in a hospital caring for patients… So what actually sets them apart from each other?

A doctor, or physician (as opposed to a surgeon), has specialised in an area of medicine that primarily uses medication to treat patients. A surgeon, however, is a specialist in performing surgical procedures, and primarily uses operations to treat patients and cure disease.

It’s a bit of a confusing one because a surgeon is a type of doctor, so all surgeons are doctors, but not all doctors are surgeons.

The term doctor, therefore, covers both physicians (doctors who are medical specialists) and surgeons (doctors who are operation specialists).

To dig a bit deeper into the matter, let’s take a look at the difference between physicians and surgeons.

What’s The Difference Between A Physician And A Surgeon?

As doctors progress through their careers, they start to become more specialised in a particular area of medicine.

So you can have doctors who are specialists in just treating lung conditions (respiratory physicians), doctors who are specialists in treating kidney disease (renal physicians), or doctors who are specialists in fixing broken bones (orthopaedic surgeons).

As a relatively junior doctor myself, I haven’t yet specialised in one specific field of medicine. But as I gain experience and seniority, at some point I will.

A doctor assessing a child’s foot

Every medical specialty is divided into either a ‘medical’ or ‘surgical’ specialty.

Medical specialties are ones in which the main treatment for patients is normally medication rather than an operation. This includes fields such as:

  • Rheumatology
  • Hepatology
  • Respiratory
  • Dermatology
  • Paediatrics
  • Neurology

Surgical specialties are areas of medicine where an operation is generally the main treatment for the patient. The doctors who are specialised in these fields are called surgeons. They include:

  • Vascular surgery
  • Breast surgery
  • Plastic surgery
  • Orthopaedics
  • General surgery
  • Urology

Physicians then are doctors who are specialised in a medical specialty while surgeons are doctors who are specialised in a surgical specialty.

Physicians and surgeons are just two different types of doctor, depending on what their area of expertise is.

What Do Doctors Do Compared To Surgeons?

Instead of performing operations like the surgeons, medical doctors are experts at using only medication to treat patients.

This means in many ways they have to be more exacting with their treatment- as they can’t just rely on an operation to fix the patient.

Doctors in medical specialties use blood tests, x-rays and other tests to guide their choice and dose of medication that they give to patients.

Over time, and with the appropriate monitoring, patients on the right treatment should then start to get better.

This isn’t to say patients being looked after by medical specialists never need an operation.

If someone comes into hospital with a chest infection, and then goes on to develop appendicitis, they’re going to need an operation to take their appendix out.

However, if this was the case, the patient would be referred from the respiratory physicians (because the patient originally attended with a chest infection) to the general surgeons (these are the surgeons who take appendixes out).

The patient would then end up with two teams of doctors looking after them.

The respiratory physicians would be treating the patient’s chest infection with antibiotics and the general surgeons would be giving advice on the postoperative care of the patient following their appendicectomy.

Do Surgeons Only Do Surgery?

If a surgeon is a specialist at doing operations, whereas a physician is an expert at treating patients with medication, do surgeons just spend their whole day doing surgery?

Well, not quite.

Although surgeons will spend a lot of their time operating, there’s still a lot more that goes into a patient’s care than just standing over them with a scalpel.

As well as the doing the operation itself, surgeons are also responsible for a patient’s care both before and after the operation.

A nurse bandaging a patient’s leg after an operation

So that means they need to make sure the patient has had all the right tests and scans done before the operation so that they’re fully prepped to go under the knife.

After they’ve done the operation, the surgeon is then still in charge of the patient’s care to make sure they make a good enough recovery to be discharged home.

In addition to all that, surgeons will also run outpatient clinics where they see patients who aren’t in hospital.

This could be patients who’ve been referred in by GPs because they think they might need an operation, or the longer-term follow-up for patients who had an operation and then were subsequently discharged from hospital.

As you can see, there’s a whole lot more to being a surgeon than just the operating itself.

As a rough estimate, it would probably be fair to say surgeons spend 50% of their time actually doing surgery. Although, this does depend on what specialty they work in.

How Does Training Differ For Doctors Vs Surgeons?

Considering medical doctors (a.k.a. physicians) and surgeons are just both doctors with different specialist interests, they have a common starting point for their training.

Both doctors and surgeons will complete medical school before moving onto their junior doctor years.

In their first couple of years after graduating, junior doctors in the UK generally rotate round a number of different specialities.

This lets junior doctors get a taste of a few different fields in medicine, allowing them to make more of an informed choice when it comes to deciding what they want to specialise in.

After working as a doctor for a couple of years comes the first branch point for doctors vs surgeons.

The training pathway splits into ‘core medical training’ or ‘core surgical training.’

It’s at this point that junior doctors are broadly committing themselves to either a medical or surgical specialty.

They don’t have decide on exactly what area they want to work in, just whether it’s broadly considered a medical or surgical one.

Following their core training, a junior doctor will then become either a medical or surgical registrar.

This is where they narrow down their choices to just one particular area (such as vascular surgery or ophthalmology).

Doctors will generally spend 6-8 years as a registrar, before completing their training and becoming either fully qualified physicians or surgeons.

If you’re thinking surgery could be for you, you’ll want to check out this complete guide on how to become a surgeon.

Are Surgeons Smarter Than Doctors?

So, the real question as to doctors vs surgeons: who’s smarter?

As you might have guessed, if you were to ask this question to a surgeon they’d say surgeons and if you were to ask a physician, they’d say physicians.

Both medical doctors and surgeons are undoubtedly ‘smart.’

They have, after all, not only graduated from medical school but navigated years working as a healthcare professional on the front line with patients.

However, as a very broad brush answer, physicians are actually considered to be smarter than surgeons.

Although surgeons are experts at the dexterous precision required to carry out complex operations, physicians need the mental horsepower to process information streams from multiple different sources and arrive at a diagnosis and treatment plan.

This is of course in no way a black and white rule.

You’re always going to have some surgeons that are cleverer than other doctors and other physicians who less clever than some surgeons.

But between doctors, that’s what the very general consensus is.

Surgeons are of course incredibly clever in what they can achieve with their hands, but when talking about traditional ‘book smarts,’ medical doctors take the win.

Final Thoughts

The true difference between doctors and surgeons is simply what area of medicine they’ve chosen to work in.

Physicians work in medical specialties and surgeons work in surgical specialties.

Surgeons carry out operations whilst doctors treat patients with medication.

Although they may seem like quite different jobs, they really have more in common than what sets them apart.

They’re both simply a type of doctor, so have both been to medical school and spent years as an unspecialised junior doctor.

They both work together to care for patients, albeit in slightly different ways.

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.