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Journey of a Doctor: Medical Specialties Deciphered


For many, picking a specialty can be challenging. (Photos: Hyunjun Fred Woo)

As described in the previous installment of “Journey of a Doctor”, the path to becoming a physician commences with acceptance and entrance into medical school. After four years of classes, months of practical experience, and standardized exams, the next step is selecting and entering into a residency. During the residency period, the newly graduated medical student will select a specialized area of medicine in which to further their education. The process of becoming a medical specialist entails several more years of education, further examination, and an even greater commitment to the field of medicine. More often than not, selecting a specialty in which to enter can be the hardest decision made by an aspiring medical professional. For undergraduate students, each choice looks more attractive than the last.

Medical specialties are classified based on several criteria. The most overarching classifications include surgery, internal medicine, and diagnostic medicine. Surgery involves the utilization of operative and instrument-based techniques for the treatment of diseases. In contrast, internal medicine focuses on diagnosis and non-surgical methods towards the treatment of diseases. Finally, diagnostic medicine solely focuses on techniques used to identify, classify, and diagnose diseases. Other areas of healthcare include public health and dietetics, which involves the study of food and nutrition.

Surgery uses operative and instrument-based techniques to treat medical conditions, help improve bodily functions, and in certain cases, improve appearance. Surgical residencies are incredibly competitive and often take significantly longer when compared to other specialties. Various well known surgical specialties include cardiovascular surgery, involving the heart and cardiac blood vessels; neurosurgery, which includes the brain, spine, and skull; and orthopedic surgery, which involves the hand, feet, ankles, and reconstruction. Other specialties that fall within the domain of surgery are anesthesiology, which plays an extremely important role in every surgery; otorhinolaryngology, which refers to surgical treatment of the ear, nose, and throat; and vascular surgery, which focuses on peripheral blood vessels. Also popular are specialties dealing with elective, or voluntary, procedures, such as plastic surgery. Overall, surgery is a diverse field that is always pushing the boundaries of creativity and ingenuity in regards to the many ways in which patients treat their ailments.

Internal medicine, like surgery, is also an expansive field incorporating every single area of the human body. Notable specialties include cardiology, which involves the treatment of the heart, neurology, which encompasses diseases within the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, and oncology, which deals with cancer and other malignant diseases. Internal medicine also includes specialties that are critical in the day-to-day lives of people. Family medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology are obvious choices for aspiring physicians who want to work intimately with people from all walks of life. Other exciting internal medicine specialties include emergency medicine and Infectious Disease (ID), which focuses on diseases caused by various biological agents.

The final category of specialties includes areas of medicine that are not traditionally associated with the stereotypical idea of a physician. Nevertheless, these specialties are especially important and necessary for accurate and quality care of patients. Pathology, which involves the study of disease through examination of cells, tissues, and organs, is vital to proper diagnostic care, which is imperative to both surgeons and internists alike. In the same vein, radiology, which involves the use of radiation and medical imaging for diagnosis and therapy, is one of the rapidly growing fields of medicine. Finally, the clinical laboratory sciences, which comprise chemistry, microbiology, immunology, and hematology, involve the use of experimental techniques to study aspects of diseases and to develop more effective treatments.

With such a wide variety of medical specialties, the next step in the journey of a doctor is not an easy one. Deciding on a specialty requires having a passion for that field of study. Certain specialties are more competitive than others, but they are equally important.  Undergraduate students who have an interest in a particular specialty should make an effort to shadow a physician in that field in order to best understand the lifestyle and career path that it entails.

Subhendu De

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