What do Doctors do?

Last updated: 10/04/2019

A doctor is someone who is qualified to treat people who are ill or injured. If a doctor is a qualified surgeon, they are able to operate on those who are ill or injured. Doctors can choose to specialise in different fields. For example, a doctor can specialise in the care of the elderly (geriatrics) 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 best to fix it. Doctors have some of the most diverse and challenging careers available. 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 who work in the community include 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 specialties 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: global heath, breast cancer or bariatric surgery, for example. Others may use their medical degree as a starting point for further study – for example progressing to 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
    A student’s time in medical school usually lasts 5 or 6 years, depending on whether the student undergoes an intercalated year. An intercalated year is a year taken 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)
    Upon their graduation all medical students will have to do 2 years of foundation training as a junior doctor. This gives them rotations in medicine, surgery and the specialties (e.g. psychiatry, general practice, and obstetrics and gynaecology) for them to decide on a future career in one of the pathways.
  • Core training (CT1–2)
    After the 2 years of foundation training, junior doctors select the major branch of medicine they want to pursue, whether it is medicine (Core Medical Training, CMT), general practice (GP Specialist Training, GPST), surgery (Core Surgical Training, CST) or one of the specialties (such as radiology, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry or ophthalmology). Doctors choosing the CMT/CST route go through various different rotations, in either medicine or surgery, before they apply for a specialty training post.
  • Specialist training (ST3–8)
    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 and 6 years long depending on the specialty. Progression depends on assessments.
  • End game
    Advancement to become a consultant is after the Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) is obtained and completion of the specialist training programme. To become a consultant, doctors apply directly using 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 specialties 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 decide what they want to do early in their career.

Some run-through sub-specialties

Run-through specialties: histopathology, radiology, ophthalmology, paediatrics, neurosurgery, maxillofacial surgery, public health, medical microbiology, obstetrics and gynaecology


Histopathology is the study of diseased tissue, which means analysing samples from biopsies and using special laboratory techniques to create thin slices and using stains to analyse the disease or benign condition and assess 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 benign conditions as well as determining causes of death using post-mortem results.

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 use of rapidly emerging 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, such as helping to optimise control of a patient’s diabetes to manage their diabetic retinopathy. The back of the eye is visible by looking through the pupil so a doctor can actually ‘see’ a lot of the damage that disease processes cause.

Royal College of Ophthalmologists


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

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

A sub-specialty of surgery, neurosurgery is a diverse field in its own right. You could become a paediatric neurosurgeon working on facial anomalies and congenital spinal cord defects, work in oncology and operate on brain and spinal cord tumours or work in ‘functional neurosurgery’ performing operations to treat epilepsy or movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. 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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