1.3 What do doctors do?

A doctor is someone who is qualified to treat people who are ill or injured. If they are qualified surgeons, they are able to operate on those who are ill or injured. This can take many forms as doctors can choose to specialise in different fields. For example, a doctor can specialise in the care of the elderly (geriatrics) in particular or choose to focus on the care of children (paediatrics). Doctors can also choose to become general practitioners or general surgeons which means they are equipped to deal with a wide range of medical and surgical issues respectively.

Doctors face the challenge of trying to heal people and to keep people as healthy as possible on a daily basis. They do this by using their communication skills to understand what the problem is and their scientific knowledge to know how to best fix it. It goes without saying that doctors have some of the most diverse and challenging careers. They are amply rewarded by being part of a universally well-respected profession.

Types of doctors

  • Community: 50% of medical school finalists will end up becoming GPs. General practitioners work in the community and see patients of all ages and backgrounds. They are faced with the formidable task of being the frontline of healthcare by acting as the first point of contact in a patient’s care. They diagnose and treat a great deal of patients independently as well as referring onto the appropriate specialist doctor in hospital for their medical opinion and advice. Other types of doctors that work in the community include community doctors such as those who work in sexual health and in community paediatrics. Doctors who work in hospices also fall under the umbrella term of ‘community doctors’. For example, palliative care specialists work towards controlling symptoms effectively in hospice patients who are terminally ill.
  • Hospitals: approximately 50% of doctors work in hospitals – either as specialty doctors or as surgeons. There are around 30 key medical specialities to choose from and within these, there are many sub-specialties. For example, you could train to become an obstetrician and then within this become a sub-specialist in gestational diabetes in high-risk pregnancies.
  • Others: academic foundation programmes and academic careers mean you can pursue a career in academia. This primarily involves doing research and teaching other students and medical professionals.
    Some may use their medical degree to go into research-based careers in whatever field interests them – this could be global heath, breast cancer or bariatric surgery for example. Others may use their medical degree as a starting point for further study – for example going onto to do a dental degree and becoming a maxillofacial surgeon.
    The options at the end of a medical degree are vast and diverse and thus the day-to-day life of a doctor varies greatly.

Career pathway

  • Medical school
    This usually lasts five or six years, depending on whether the student undergoes an intercalated year. This is a year out of medical school to study a subject in detail, which is compulsory or optional depending on which medical school is considered.
  • Foundation Programme (F1 – 2)
    All medical students will have to do two years of Foundation training as a junior doctor upon their graduation. This gives them rotations in both medicine, surgery and the specialities (psychiatry, general practice (GP), obstetrics & gynaecology) for them to decide on a future career in one of the pathways.
  • Core Training (CT 1 – 2)
    After the two years of Foundation training, junior doctors select the major branch of medicine they want to pursue, whether it is Medicine (Core Medical Training), GP (GP Specialist Training), Surgery (Core Surgical Training), or some of the specialities (such as radiology, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, ophthalmology). The CMT/CST doctors go through various different rotations, rotating in either Medicine or Surgery, before they apply for a Speciality Training post.
  • Specialist training (ST 3 – 8)
    This is the next step when doctors decide on higher training/more specialist training (e.g. to become a cardiologist within the field of medicine). Training can be between 4 to 6 years long dependent on the speciality. Progression depends on assessments.
  • End-game
    Advancement to become a consultant is after the CCT (Certificate of Completion of Training), and completion of the Specialist Training programme. To become a consultant, doctors apply directly with their CV, with their academic reputation playing a part in the application process. They also have to undergo interviews to secure the position.
  • Run-through training
    Some specialities can be entered directly after the Foundation programme. Some can be joined after finishing the Core Training programme as well. This is due to the merging of Core Training and Specialist Training in these cases. This is ideal for doctors who have decided early on in their career on what they want to do.

Run-through specialities: Histopathology, Radiology, Opthalmology, Paediatrics, Neurosurgery, Maxillofacial surgery, Public Health, Medical Microbiology, Obstetrics and Gynaecology


This is the study of diseased tissue – this means analysing samples of biopsies and using special laboratory techniques to create thin slices and using strains to analyse both the disease or benign condition and often the best treatment option available. Attention to detail, accuracy and being able to work under pressure are key attributes. You may be asked to analyse tissue sampled before a surgeon operates and the outcome will determine how to proceed in the operation. You will make diagnoses of cancer and of other benign conditions as well as determining the cause of death at post-mortem.

Royal College of Pathologists


A career in radiology involves using imaging to diagnose, treat and monitor disease. Technology now allows progressively more advanced detection of disease and increased accuracy. You will cover all parts of the human body helping to confirm and categorise disease in almost any body cavity. There are lots of opportunities for research and rapidly emerging new technologies.

Royal College of Radiologists


Being an ophthalmologist involves diagnosing, treating and managing all conditions related to the eye and the visual system. It is an exciting time for this specialty with many pioneering new treatments being trialled. Working in this field can make a huge impact on patients’ lives and involves working closely with other specialties to manage co-morbid medical conditions e.g. helping to optimise control of a patient’s diabetes in order to manage their diabetic retinopathy. The back of the eye is visible by looking into your pupil so you can actually ‘see’ a lot of the damage of disease processes.

Royal College of Ophthalmologists


Working closely with newborn babies to 16 year olds, this is a diverse and rewarding speciality. As a paediatrician you can work mainly in the community or as a general paediatrician in hospital or within a niche sub-speciality. This field of medicine deals with developmental and growth issues within children, childhood diseases and specific childhood needs that are unique to any other field of medicine. You will work closely with children’s families and consider the environment of the child in order to manage their health and development holistically.

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health


This sub-specialty of surgery is a diverse field within its own right. You could become a paediatric neurosurgeon working on facial anomalies and congenital spinal cord defects, work in oncology operating on brain and spinal cord tumours or work in ‘functional neurosurgery’ performing operations to treat epilepsy or movement disorders like Parkinson’s. Some psychiatric conditions are treated with surgery too and the range of options is becoming increasingly diverse.

Royal College of Surgeons

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