What’s The Difference Between A GP And A Hospital Doctor?

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.

There’s a huge array of different types of doctors, depending on how granular you want to get, but one of the easiest distinctions to make is that between a GP and a hospital doctor.

While both are medical professionals, they differ in various aspects, including their primary work environments, scope of practice, and interactions with patients.

A GP serves as the first point of contact for patients with non-emergency medical concerns. They provide primary healthcare services and refer to specialist hospital doctors when needed. Hospital doctors, in contrast, focus on treating these more complex patients generally only in their specific areas of interest.

Both GPs and hospital doctors undergo rigorous medical training; however, their pathways to practice differ significantly.

In this article, I’m going to take a deeper dive into some of the key differences between GPs and hospital specialists, whilst also highlighting a lot of the areas that they overlap.

Key Takeaways

  • GPs provide primary healthcare services and serve as the first point of contact for patients, while hospital doctors specialise in specific medical areas.
  • Both professionals undergo rigorous medical training, but GPs transition from hospital rotations to general practice settings, whereas hospital doctors continue working in secondary healthcare.
  • The work environment, scope of practice, and patient interactions differ for GPs and hospital doctors, contributing to the distinctions between their roles in healthcare.

Job Role

First off, let’s look at the actual job roles of a GP vs. a hospital doctor.

What Does A GP Do?

A General Practitioner (GP) is a doctor who provides primary care to patients in a local community.

They deal with a wide range of health issues, from diagnosing and managing chronic diseases to providing advice on preventive measures.

GPs are often the first point of contact for individuals seeking medical help.

In some cases, if a patient’s condition is more serious or requires specialised care, a GP may refer them to a hospital doctor or other health professional.

GPs usually work in GP surgeries and health centres, and they play a crucial role in maintaining the well-being of their local community. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Diagnosing and treating a variety of medical conditions, both physical and mental
  • Monitoring patients’ progress over the course of treatment
  • Providing health education and advice on disease prevention
  • Coordinating care with other healthcare professionals, such as nurses and pharmacists
  • Referring patients to specialist doctors or services when necessary

What Does A Hospital Doctor Do?

Hospital doctors, unlike GPs, provide specialised care to their patients within a hospital setting.

They are experts in specific fields of medicine and work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals to offer comprehensive care to patients.

Hospital doctors usually work in one of the many medical specialties, such as surgery, internal medicine, or paediatrics, to name a few.

The role of a hospital doctor can vary depending on their specialisation, but some of their common duties include:

  • Assessing and diagnosing patients with complex medical conditions
  • Developing and implementing treatment plans for patients
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to ensure optimal patient care
  • Performing surgeries, medical procedures, or specialised treatments
  • Monitoring patients’ progress and adjusting treatment plans as needed

Training Pathways

Next up, let’s look at the training pathways required to become a general practitioner and a hospital doctor.

Training Required To Become A GP

To become a GP in the UK, you have to first complete a medical degree, which typically takes five years.

Following this, you need to complete a two-year foundation programme (FY1 and FY2) consisting of rotations across various medical specialties.

After finishing the foundation programme, aspiring GPs must then enter a three-year GP specialty training, also known as GP Vocational Training Scheme (GP VTS).

This training programme consists of roughly 18 months of training in a hospital setting, followed by approximately 18 months in a general practice environment, allowing trainees to gain broad exposure to general medical practice.

Training To Become A Hospital Consultant

Similar to the GP training pathway, individuals aspiring to become a hospital consultant must first complete a medical degree and a two-year foundation programme.

However, after completing the foundation years, they must choose a particular medical specialty to pursue further training.

Specialty training generally takes between five and eight years, depending on the chosen field.

This training involves rotations in various hospital departments relevant to the chosen specialty and completing appropriate examinations and assessments.

Once specialty training is completed, doctors can then apply for a consultant position within their chosen field.

Scope Of Practice

Arguably, one of the biggest differences between GPs and hospital specialists is the type of patients that they actually see.

GPs See Everybody

General practitioners are the first point of contact within the healthcare system for most patients.

They provide a wide range of medical care for people of all ages, genders, and health conditions.

GPs are experienced in handling pretty much every medical condition under the sun, both acute and chronic, as well as preventative care.

GPs have a broad base of knowledge and are expected to diagnose and manage a diverse range of conditions, referring patients to specialists when necessary.

GPs, besides handling clinical aspects, also work closely with patients and their families, monitoring their overall well-being and providing health education when needed.

They play a crucial role in coordinating patient care, both within their practice and with external healthcare providers, ensuring each patient receives appropriate and timely care.

Hospital Doctors Specialise

Hospital doctors, on the other hand, typically focus on a particular area of medicine, also known as a specialty.

Their scope of practice is narrower than that of GPs, as they broadly exclusively manage conditions and patients relevant to their chosen specialty.

While some hospital doctors may still engage in general medicine, they are more likely to apply their expert knowledge to specific health problems.

They usually work in a multidisciplinary team within the hospital setting, including consultants, junior doctors, nurses, and other allied health professionals.

Hospital doctors may also be responsible for more complex diagnoses and treatment plans involving advanced tests, procedures, and treatments.

They often work in conjunction with other specialists, referring patients to one another when a need for specific expertise arises.

Work Environment

As I’ve touched on previously in this article, where these two different types of doctors work is also a key differentiator.

GPs Work In The Community

GPs are (surprise surprise) generally based in GP surgeries and health centres in local areas, which serve as the first point of contact for patients seeking medical advice or care.

A GP giving a vaccine to a little girl
A GP giving a vaccine to a little girl

There is limited scope for GPs to work in hospitals, sometimes in a bit of an annexe to a local A&E department, but broadly GPs aren’t found in hospitals.

Aside from GP practices, you might find a GP as a sports team’s doctor, as an expedition’s medical support or on the set for film or television projects.

Hospital Doctors Work In Secondary Care

Unlike GPs, hospital doctors (as the name suggests) work in secondary care settings such as hospitals and specialist clinics.

It’s in these hospitals that the more specialist tests and bits of kit are generally available that these hospital doctors can take advantage of.

There’s no point in knowing what super obscure test a patient needs as part of their treatment if you’re not then able to give it to them.

Multidisciplinary Working

While medicine is almost always a team sport, GPs and specialists interact differently with the teams around them.

GPs Often Work Autonomously

GPs often work autonomously in their own clinics and practices.

While they may collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as nurses and pharmacists, the work of GPs tends to be more independent and focused on managing individual patients’ medical needs.

Hospital Doctors Work In Teams

On the other hand, hospital doctors are nearly always part of multidisciplinary teams in a hospital setting.

Their work involves collaboration with various specialists, often including surgeons, anaesthetists, radiologists, and other healthcare professionals.

They have specific roles within the team and work together to provide comprehensive care for patients who have been admitted to the hospital.

Continuity Of Care

The final difference between GPs and hospital doctors that I want to look at is what happens after a patient has finished their treatment.

GPs Can Look After A Patient From Cradle To Grave

General practitioners play a crucial role in providing continuous care to patients throughout their lives.

GPs are responsible for overseeing a patient’s care from infancy to old age, ensuring that necessary preventive measures, diagnoses, and treatments are provided at the right time.

This comprehensive approach allows GPs to establish a long-lasting relationship with their patients, which fosters trust and enables better communication.

Hospital Doctors Discharge Patients Once Better

While GPs are responsible for overseeing and coordinating a patient’s care throughout their lifetime, hospital doctors are typically more focused on providing immediate, specialised care for patients facing specific health concerns.

This means that hospital doctors typically see a patient for a limited period of time, often while they are admitted to the hospital.

In these cases, the hospital doctor’s primary responsibility is to accurately diagnose and efficiently treat the specific health issue that a patient presents with.

Once the treatment has been administered and the patient’s condition has improved or stabilised, the hospital doctor discharges them from their care.

This contrasts with the long-term, ongoing relationship that GPs often maintain with their patients.

Final Thoughts

Both GPs and hospital doctors play essential roles in the NHS, but their responsibilities and work settings differ significantly.

While GPs focus on providing primary care in a community setting, hospital doctors specialise in specific areas of medicine and work within the hospital environment.

Although the differences between a GP and a hospital doctor can seem significant, at the end of the day they’re both doctors looking to do the best for their patients.

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.