What's the Difference Between a General Practitioner and an Orthopedic Surgeon?

If you’re experiencing joint pain, you may encounter a general practitioner and an orthopedic surgeon. Find out how they are alike and how they are different.

With over 120 fields of medicine, it can be hard to understand what makes them different. If you’re experiencing joint pain, two that you might encounter are a general practitioner and an orthopedic surgeon. This article is designed to review the similarities and differences between these two fields of medicine.

General practitioners (GPs) are broadly-skilled physicians who tend to treat a little bit of everything. From kids to adults, fevers to wellness checks, GPs end up building long-term relationships with their patients over the course of their lifetime.2 Sometimes, there’s a misconception that doctors become general practitioners because they couldn’t get into another area of medicine, which is far from the case. General practice is a chosen career path, as is any other specialty area.1

Specialists typically see patients with a specific condition or a problem with a specific part of the body.2 Orthopedic surgeons, for example, are specialists who treat diseases, injuries, and deformities that occur in the joints, muscles, and bones.3

There are many similarities between these two fields. The main difference is what happens after they receive their medical degree. The below chart highlights the similarities and differences between a general practitioner and an orthopedic surgeon. 

General Practitioner

Orthopedic Surgeon

Under-Graduate Education: Same required for both types of doctors.

  • Bachelor of Science: A four-year pre-medical program consisting of courses like physics, chemistry and biology.3

Under-Graduate Education: Same required for both types of doctors.

  • Bachelor of Science: A four-year pre-medical program consisting of courses like physics, chemistry and biology.3

Post-Graduate Education: Same required for both types of doctors.

  • Medical Degree: A four-year doctoral program combining hands-on clinical rotations with courses like physiology, pharmacology, organic chemistry, and medical ethics.2

Post-Graduate Education: Same required for both types of doctors.

  • Medical Degree: A four-year doctoral program combining hands-on clinical rotations with courses like physiology, pharmacology, organic chemistry, and medical ethics.2

This is the point at which the career path for the general practitioner and the orthopedic surgeon will separate.2

Residency: GPs spend their post-graduate residency practicing medicine under the supervision of an experienced practitioner.2

Residency: An orthopedic surgeon will spend their post-graduate residency observing, assisting, and finally performing increasingly complex procedures on their own while under the supervision of their sponsoring surgeon.3

Residency Duration: Minimum of three years.4

Residency Duration: Minimum of five years.3-4

Fellowship: Not required.

Fellowship: One year in specialty area.3

Exams:5 Medical Board Exam

  • Board Exam in Field
Exams:3 Medical Board Exam
  • Board Exam as Orthopedic Surgeon
  • Second Board Exam in Specialty Area

Both types of doctors receive similar undergraduate and graduate educations. While the general practitioner receives further education in the overall wellness of a patient, the specialist focuses his or her attention to one area.  Both are great resources if you are experiencing pain. If your general practitioner has referred you to a specialist, hopefully this article helps you understand the differences between the two and a little of what you can expect from your orthopedic surgeon.  

References
  1. Wilson, P. "Are You Going to Be a Specialist? Or Just a GP?" Huff Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/myths-about-general-practitioners_n_3937618
  2. Decker, Fred (2018, March 16). "The Difference Between a Physician & a Surgeon." Work - Chron.com. http://work.chron.com/difference-between-physician-surgeon-7526.html
  3. Decker, Fred (2019, April 1). "What Schooling Is Needed to Be an Orthopedic Surgeon?" Work - Chron.com. http://work.chron.com/schooling-needed-orthopedic-surgeon-10163.html
  4. Santiago, A. (2019, March 20). "All About Medical Residency Training." Very Well Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/medical-residency-training-1736213
  5. Stoppler, M. "How to Choose a Doctor." MedicineNet. https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=47649
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