Introduction to Physician Career Path
People on a medical career or thinking of starting one may wonder what being a physician looks like. We know from series, movies, and actual physicians that the medical career is a tough one, with years of studying and practice to become a physician.
We know that doctors spend most of their time in clinical practice, either hospital-based or private practice, taking care of patients in each of the aspects that the medical specialties have endeavored.
Although this is true, there are many other pathways physicians may take during their careers, including clinical and basic research, entrepreneurship, public health, medical education, and many more.
In this article, we are going to explore the different career paths and jobs a physician might have, considering the wide range of jobs and professions that take part in the healthcare system and community.
“Traditional” Medical Roles
The majority of physicians start in this pathway. Medical students apply to medical residencies to specialize in a specific medical field.
The different medical fields include a wide range of clinical and surgical specialties, as well as paraclinical specialties, such as pathology or diagnostic imaging. The purpose of these specialties is to focus on the care of patients with a wide range of diseases and conditions.
General practitioners are the doctors who work in primary care medicine, attending to a wide range of conditions affecting the different organ systems. When more specialized care is needed, general practitioners refer patients to an adequate specialist. For example, if someone has a cardiac condition, they may be referred to the cardiologist, or if they have a neurological condition, they are referred to the neurologist.
In other cases, patients consult in the emergency department, where emergency physicians make a diagnosis of the underlying condition and decide whether patients need further care in the hospital or in an outpatient basis.
This establishes two main scenarios in which physicians work: hospital-based practice, or “inpatient” management, and consultations, or “outpatient” practice.
Several specialties share activities as inpatient and outpatient; for example, surgical specialties, like general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, vascular surgery, or neurosurgery, perform their daily activities with patients in a hospital or clinic environment. Then, patients are followed-up on an outpatient basis.
This is also the case for many clinical specialties, such as internal medicine, cardiology, dermatology, neurology, or psychiatry. Specialists can work in a hospital environment, treating patients with acute conditions and further follow them up on an outpatient basis.
Clinical practice is the foundation of any career path in medicine since physicians understand first-hand the needs their patients and the healthcare system could have, and if they consider exploring other medical-related jobs, they can apply their knowledge of the medical system.
Here are some resources to help physicians with their traditional career path:
Beyond Clinical Practice: Alternative Career Paths
Medical Leadership and Administration
Medical directors and administrators are those who lead and manage operations in healthcare facilities. They ensure the quality of healthcare delivery in a range of medical facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, or public health departments.
Medical directors and administrators have a solid background in medicine, healthcare system functioning, healthcare administration, and public health. They also tend to have strong leadership, problem-solving, and analytical capacities and are good communicators.
Some of the activities that medical directors and administrators perform are as follows:
- Development of medical policies.
- Coordination of healthcare with health providers.
- Facility’s correct functioning.
- Recruitment and management of healthcare providers.
- Facility’s budget management.
- Medical insurance coordination.
- Establishment of a supportive work environment.
- Promotion of public health education.
Here are some resources that may help improve your leadership and administrative skills:
Medical Consultancy and Expertise
Consultant physicians can share their expertise in their fields to solve many healthcare-related problems, providing their knowledge and experience to many applications. These include:
- Healthcare consulting firms: physicians can work as employees or independent contractors for healthcare consulting firms, which provide services to hospitals, clinics, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies. They try to solve problems related to the quality of care, implementation of technologies or medical policies, development of medical policies, and cost improvement.
- Legal consulting: physicians can work as consultants for attorneys who need medical knowledge and opinion to solve a legal case. This can involve cases of malpractice, personal injury, or worker’s compensation. They review medical records and write reports on their conclusions of the case from the medical perspective.
- Government consulting: physicians can embrace activities like public health policy, educational policy, and research policy, along with state, federal, or local governmental agencies. They can provide the knowledge necessary to solve problems in such applications. For example, infectious disease specialists are consulted for the management of epidemics, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Peer consulting: Physicians can work as consultants for colleagues as well. There are many tricky cases that need a fresh idea when trying to solve. Thanks to years of experience, expert physicians can give their opinions on how to solve novel or difficult clinical cases.
Medical Writing and Communication
Communicating ideas, current events, or factual information is very important in the medical field. This has led the world to know and advance the field periodically with all the updates and advancements that are daily done in medicine. Whether in medical journals, medical blogs, textbooks, or medical society clinical guidelines, communicating medical knowledge is a pillar of the medical field.
Physicians can play various roles in this respect:
- Medical writers: physicians can work writing blog articles, newsletters, or books for the general audience as well as for the medical audience. In this way, they are able to report medical news, trends in their fields, research findings, or opinions about current issues.
- Medical educators: this is a vast field in which physicians can write educational articles, textbooks, or manuals to keep up with the education of hundreds of medical newcomers since continuous training and education are keys in the medical field. Digital platforms with audiovisual information and written text are available for physicians to update their knowledge. Other applications include questionnaire development for physicians and medical students to test their knowledge.
- Medical editors: physicians can work proofreading and validating their colleagues’ written work. Be it as a freelancer editor for medical blogs or a staff editor for medical journals, medical editors ensure the appropriate communication of medical knowledge and information.
- Literature authors: physicians can also explore fiction writing as part of their career path. There are plenty of famous fiction works created by physicians.
Here are some resources to help improve medical writing and communication:
Technology, Medical Device, and Pharmaceutical Industry
Physicians can work in relevant roles in the research and development of medical devices, technological implementations in the medical field, and the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the possible roles are:
- Medical device research and development: Physicians can work promoting the creation of devices that meet some unsatisfied in their fields. Whether it is as inventing, implementing, or testing the new technology, these are important roles for the continuous growth of the medical field.
- Technological implementations in the medical field: Many innovations, such as IA and robotics, are changing the scope of medical practice. Testing, validating, and implementing these in various aspects of medical practice, such as robot-assisted surgery or computer-based clinical decision tools, are essential for improving clinical practice.
- Pharmaceutical industry: Physicians can work as researchers, developers, reviewers, or advisors of drug development to improve healthcare outcomes. They can participate in or conduct clinical trials to ensure the efficacy and safety of the medical therapies we use on a daily basis.
Global Health and Medical Missions
Physicians can work in underserved communities in various ways that benefit both the communities and themselves. Some of the opportunities for physicians to work in underserved communities are:
- Rural training programs: Physicians can participate in rural training programs that offer clerkships, residencies, or fellowships in rural communities that have a shortage of health care professionals. They can gain hands-on experience, broaden their scope of practice, and learn about the unique challenges and opportunities of rural medicine.
- National Health Service Corps: Physicians can apply for scholarships or loan repayment programs offered by the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), a federal program that supports health professionals who work in underserved urban, rural, or tribal communities.
- Volunteering: Physicians can volunteer their time and skills in underserved communities, either locally or internationally. They can work with various organizations that provide free or low-cost healthcare services to patients who lack access or resources.
Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Creative solutions to unmet healthcare needs are usually tackled by entrepreneurs, and it is not rare to see physicians embracing this role. This job path can be applied to all the above fields, as every business needs creative and innovative minds with leadership abilities to give value to the whole healthcare system.
Here are some resources to help physicians with entrepreneurial and innovative mindsets:
The scope of activities that physicians can choose to pursue is wide and requires the individual to understand their own passions and preferences for working.
Clinical practice is the foundation of many other medical job opportunities since it provides physicians with the knowledge and experience of how the healthcare system works and the continuing needs that patient care generates.
Kossaify A, Rasputin B, Lahoud JC. The function of a medical director in healthcare institutions: a master or a servant. Health Services Insights. 2013 Jan;6:HSI-S13000. The function of a medical director in healthcare institutions: a master or a servant – PubMed (nih.gov)
Nabity J. Your Step by Step Guide to Becoming a Physician Consultant [Internet]. Physicians Thrive. 2020 [cited 2023 May 30]. Available from: https://physiciansthrive.com/physician-consultant/
Ruiz Morilla MD, Sans M, Casasa A, Giménez N. Implementing technology in healthcare: insights from physicians. BMC medical informatics and decision making. 2017 Dec;17:1-9. Implementing technology in healthcare: insights from physicians | SpringerLink
Franco Cuevas is a physician who graduated from the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. He practices general medicine in the Emergency Department at Sanatorio de la Cañada, Córdoba. His focus is on writing medical content to improve physicians' access to relevant medical information for daily practice. He has participated in some research projects and has a special joy in teaching and writing about medical concepts.