Types of Physicians

There is no single road to becoming a doctor, but most medical career paths share key characteristics. Doctors are sometimes said to fall into two main groups: primary care physicians (sometimes referred to as generalists) and specialists. The term primary care refers to the medical fields that treat most common health problems — family medicine, general internal medicine, pediatrics, and in some cases obstetrics and gynecology.

Specialists (or subspecialists) concentrate on particular types of illnesses or problems that affect specific tissues or organ systems in the body. They may treat patients with complicated illnesses who are referred to them by primary care physicians or by other specialists.

Whatever their focus, all physicians must hold one of two degrees. Most have an M.D. (doctor of medicine) degree, and some hold a D.O. (doctor of osteopathy) degree. The two types of degrees reflect different theories and practices of medicine — allopathy and osteopathy—but medical licensing authorities recognize both training paths.

Doctors may hold many other degrees as well as medical degrees. Some have Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) or master’s degrees in the sciences or in fields like public health, hospital administration, or education.

Not all professionals who care for patients are physicians. Fields like nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, physical therapy, clinical psychology, laboratory sciences, and medical technology are essential to the health care system. Some of these health professionals — particularly physician assistants or nurse practitioners — may provide many basic medical services in conjunction with physicians.