How to become an orthopedic surgeon?

Anyone who has sprained an ankle, nroken an arm or dislocated a kneecap will attest to the importance of a good orthopedist. This kind of medical doctor is both physician and surgeon. The orthopedic doctor works to prevent, diagnose and treat afflictions of the bones, ligaments, joints muscles and tendons. In short, orthopedic surgeons deal with the entire musculoskeletal system. Performing surgery to correct damage or injury, these specialists also set broken bones into position so they can heal optimally. They prescribe medication for pain and the reduction of degenerative diseases like arthritis and osteoporosis. They also prescribe physical therapy for post-surgical patients.

Those who are considering a future career in orthopedic surgery will complete many years of undergraduate education (with, perhaps, pre-med internships), medical school, internship and residency before they can practice. The rewards, nevertheless, are many, especially for students who enjoy the biological sciences as well as abundant human interaction. The satisfaction of healing bodies and enabling them to become more mobile, flexible and strong is immense. Furthermore, orthopedists receive highly competitive compensation compared to other doctors and numerous other professions. Treating musculo-skeletal traumas and diseases can be complicated and demanding so there is little doubt that orthopedic surgeons earn their pay.

Is an Orthopedic Surgeon the Same as a Chiropractor

While some orthopedic doctors may employ chiropractors — or partner with them on occasion — they are very different professions in approach and in training. The aim of chiropractic is to allow the body to heal itself through the precise alignment of the musculo-skeletal system. This optimal positioning is achieved by manual manipulation of — primarily — the spine and its vertebrae. Other therapies vary by individual chiropractor. Many patients visit a chiropractor for back pain relief due to sports injuries, car accidents or strain from household tasks. Chiropractors are licensed after a minimum of three years in college and the completion of a four-year Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree at an accredited chiropractic college.

As noted, an orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor (M.D.), the training of whom can be traced back to Hippocrates in ancient Greece. By contrast, chiropractic training originated with David Palmer in the late 1800s. As an MD, the surgeon approaches disorder and disease from multiple perspectives, alignment being just one. Orthopedic surgery embraces the germ theory of disease, taking into account bacterial and viral infections, biochemical imbalances and genetic conditions. This more comprehensive understanding of human infirmity is why orthopedic doctors must spend many more years in training.

How Many Years Does It Take to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon?

To get into medical school, prospective students must have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university — usually four years of study, more or less. A course load heavy in science and pre-med internships increase the probability of acceptance. Medical school consumes another four years in which the aspiring doctor is drilled in basic sciences including anatomy, biochemistry, physiology and genetics. This preliminary education is followed by clinical rotations in the standard medical specialties, e.g. surgery, medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, radiology, psychiatry and neurology. Scholarly research is also mandated while students take electives in areas of interest.

With a medical degree in hand, a newly minted doctor can look forward to five years of on-the-job training as an intern and a resident with a hospital program — the first couple of years in general surgery before moving on to orthopedic procedures. During this time, they work alongside attending physicians in learning how to become an orthopedic surgeon. Taking patient histories, evaluating conditions, assisting in surgery and conducting post-operative follow-ups are just a few of the tasks involved. This is a physically and emotionally taxing period in the aspiring orthopedist’s career, yet essential to gaining professional competence and patient rapport. Some doctors opt for fellowships or study abroad in order to gain expertise in a variety of sub-specialties like hand surgery, pediatric orthopedics or orthopedic oncology. 

That is 13 to 15 years of higher education.

What About Licensing and Certification?

Physicians must pass a three-part, national licensing examination before residency commences. This exam tests medical knowledge and patient care aptitudes. After residency is finished — and any fellowships or study abroad programs are through — a doctor must practice for two years prior to sitting for a certification examination administered by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons. This extensive inquiry includes both computer-based and oral components. The former consists of 320 multiple-choice questions; the latter is a Q&A analysis of the surgical procedures in which the candidate participated during residency. Failure to pass the oral exam mandates that the candidate must re-take the computer exam before another oral test is scheduled.

To be clear, a licensed surgeon need not be board certified to practice orthopedics. Still, the recognition of professional competence and integrity accorded by a jury of peers helps to establish the doctor as a reliable and worthy practitioner. It conveys a comfort level to prospective patients, making the surgeon more competitive in the marketplace. In fact, certification carries such weight as to require renewal through board evaluation, continuing education and subsequent examination. These measures help to ensure that the orthopedic surgeon is up to date on all the advances in the art and science of surgical practice. Because new research and innovations continue to flourish, clinical practitioners must remain aware of them and deft in their employment.

Who Hires Orthopedic Surgeons and How Much Do They Earn?

A plurality of orthopedic surgeons (over 35 percent) work with a private practice group while 11 percent opt for solo practice. These doctors are “on staff” at hospitals — i.e. having privileges to use facilities and staff — but are not directly employed by the institutions, as 17 percent of their colleagues are. Others work in academia, for HMOs or with government agencies and the military services. According to Forbes Magazine, their average annual salaries are among the highest of medical doctors: $519,000 per year.

Are Future Prospects Good for This Specialty?

Like most medical professions, orthopedic surgery is expected to see a growth of seven percent in the coming decade. This is largely a recession-proof career. Prospective doctors who follow all of the steps in how to become an orthopedic surgeon can take confidence in the job security that awaits them.


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