general surgeon

A general surgeon is a medical doctor with advanced training and expertise in operating on patients. They operate when patients need more than medicine to treat their condition.

Unlike experts who focus on a specific system or body part, general surgeons can address a wide range of conditions affecting almost any area. These include injuries from trauma, and disease like appendicitis, cholecystitis, hernias, diverticulitis, as well as other surgical problems.

What Does a General Surgeon Do?

According to the American Board of Surgery, general surgeons must have a deep knowledge of surgically related clinical care, including expertise in:

  • Blood transfusions and coagulation issues.
  • How to do endoscopic procedures, including upper endoscopy and colonoscopy.
  • How wounds heal.
  • How to use and interpret imaging technologies in diagnosis and treatment.
  • Infections and how to prevent and treat them.
  • Managing patients’ fluids and electrolyte levels.
  • Metabolism and nutrition.
  • Pain management.
  • Resuscitation.

General surgeons must also develop expert knowledge of related disciplines, including:

  • Anatomy and physiology, the study of the body’s structures and how they function.
  • Epidemiology, the study of how often diseases occur in different groups of people and why.
  • Immunology, the study of the immune system.
  • Pathology, the study of tissue samples used in medical diagnosis.

Along with in-depth clinical training, general surgeons also receive leadership training. This background prepares them to lead multidisciplinary patient care teams. For example, general surgeons typically work closely with patients’ primary providers (internists and pediatricians).

General surgeons also lead the operating room team, which includes anesthesiologists, nurses, and technicians. During and after surgery, they work with pathologists to finalize diagnoses.

They also coordinate with other specialists involved in their patients’ care, including endocrinologists, infectious disease specialists, and neurologists.

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What Kind of Training Do General Surgeons Have?

General surgeons are doctors who choose general surgery for their residency training after completing four years of medical school. The general surgery residency takes five years to complete.

During training, a general surgeon must master nine areas of surgery. These include the:

  • Digestive tract.
  • Head and neck.
  • Heart and blood vessels.
  • Hormones and glands (endocrine system).
  • Organs in the abdomen and pelvis.
  • Skin and other soft tissues, including the breasts.

Additionally, general surgeons receive training in surgical techniques to:

  • Care for critically ill patients.
  • Manage traumatic injuries.
  • Treat cancer (surgical oncology).

Some people think general surgeons are less skilled than specialists due to their broad focus.

In reality, general surgeons undergo rigorous and extensive training that prepares them to perform a wide variety of surgeries. They play a crucial role in areas with limited access to specialized care and in comprehensive emergency care.

General surgeons who wish to become board-certified must pass two exams. The first is the written General Surgery Qualifying Exam. After they pass that, they sit for the oral General Surgery Certifying Exam.

The American College of Surgeons recognizes 14 surgical specialties, including general surgery. Some general surgeons decide to specialize further; in that case, they’ll need extra training beyond the five-year residency.

For example, surgeons who want to become thoracic (chest) surgeons must complete two additional years of training. The same is true for surgeons who want to specialize in pediatric surgery.

What Conditions Can General Surgeons Treat?

Some general surgeons focus on certain areas more than others and can evaluate to determine if you need a surgical subspecialist. Some of the conditions general surgeons treat include:

  • Appendicitis.
  • Bowel obstructions.
  • Cancers of the breast, colon, and others.
  • Gallstones.
  • Gastric bypass.
  • Gastric ulcers.
  • Hemorrhoids.
  • Hernia.
  • Pancreatitis.
  • Thyroid tumors.
  • Trauma, such as automobile accidents and gunshots.
  • Ulcerative colitis.
  • Unexplained bleeding.
  • Varicose veins.

What Kind of Surgical Techniques Do General Surgeons Use?

General surgeons also master a full array of state-of-the-art surgical techniques and technologies. These include:

  • Endoscopy.
  • Laparoscopic surgery.
  • Robotic surgery.


Your surgeon inserts a hollow tube down your throat or into your anus until it reaches the affected organ. For most endoscopic surgeries, your doctor won’t need to cut your body open to conduct the surgery.

Endoscopes typically come equipped with light and camera attachments so the surgeon can view the surgical site on a large monitor. Your surgeon will rely on the light and camera to see everything clearly at the surgical site. Endoscopes may also contain tiny surgical tools that allow your surgeon to complete the operation as needed.

Laparoscopic surgery

For this surgical technique, your surgeon will make several tiny incisions near the operation site and insert a long, narrow instrument into each of them. As with endoscopy, these instruments let the surgeon repair or remove tissue as needed.

In abdominal laparoscopy, your surgeon will add carbon dioxide through a tube to hold the abdominal wall away from the surgical site during the operation.

Robotic surgery

In robot-assisted surgery, the surgeon sits at a console and relies on a video monitor to see the surgical field. They operate using large, robotic arms connected to both the console and the patient.

Thanks to the camera arm, the surgeon sees a magnified, high-definition, 3D view of the surgical site. These arms can carry out even the most delicate surgical tasks through a series of tiny incisions.

Patients receiving endoscopy, laparoscopy, or robotic surgery often heal more quickly than they do from traditional, open-field surgical techniques. That’s because the surgeon only uses a few small incisions rather than one large incision. Most patients find they have less post-surgery pain with these techniques.

What to Expect When You See a General Surgeon

General surgeons are always on call and available for emergencies. But when you have time to plan surgery, your general surgeon will:

  • Take your medical history and perform a physical exam.
  • Order tests and consultations with other physicians or health care staff.
  • Review test results to identify abnormal findings.
  • Create and recommend a treatment plan.
  • Address concerns and answer questions about what to expect with surgery.

Sometimes, based on the results, they’ll tell you surgery isn’t necessary.

General surgeons undergo training to explore all available treatment options before recommending a treatment plan. They may also recommend a “watchful waiting” approach, indicating that surgery could become necessary later.

If you do have surgery, you may think that the last time you’ll see your general surgeon is in the operating room. But general surgeons provide both immediate and longer-term follow-up. You can expect to see your surgeon at least several times in the clinic for follow-up care.

The American Board of Surgery. General Surgery: Overview Link

The American Board of Surgery. General Surgery: Qualifying Examination. Link

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physicians and Surgeons. Link

American Board of Physician Specialities. What Does Board Certification Mean? Link

American College of Surgeons. What are the surgical specialties? Link

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