When someone is crippled or disabled, they often go to see an orthopedic surgeon with the hope that the surgeon can fix what is broken. This type of physician is an expert on diseases and injuries that affect the musculoskeletal system in the human body, which includes muscles, bones, tendons, joints, ligaments and nerves. Orthopedic surgeons perform various kinds of medical operations, including osteotomies, which are surgical corrections of deformities in bones. They also sometimes prescribe non-surgical treatments, such as medications and rehabilitative physical therapy. Aspiring doctors whose goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon can learn some essential facts about the profession by reading the questions and answers below.
What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Do?
Orthopedic surgeons are physicians who specialize in treating musculoskeletal conditions, including both congenital health concerns like scoliosis and traumatic injuries such as broken hips. They may also assist individuals who are suffering with back pain or knee pain, and they can help people who struggle with osteoporosis or arthritis. Orthopedic doctors with expertise in treating sports injuries may also get the opportunity to treat professional athletes and work for professional sports teams.
These types of doctors, also called orthopedists, say one important difference between orthopedic surgery and other branches of medicine is that it usually does not involve life-or-death situations. Instead, the focus of the discipline is generally on improving the lives of patients with pain and mobility issues by addressing the root cause of their distress, whether it is a fracture, sprain, deformity, trauma injury, bone break or joint that needs to be replaced.
There are, however, some orthopedic surgeons who concentrate on orthopedic oncology and become experts at removing tumors from the musculoskeletal system, and do address life-threatening situations, orthopedists say. Moreover, even though orthopedic surgeons are trained to perform surgeries, they also address patients' musculoskeletal problems using other treatment methods, and they sometimes collaborate with physical therapists.
"We don't necessarily save lives," says Dr. Alvin Crawford, a professor emeritus in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine who has received numerous honors for his work as a physician, including a lifetime achievement award given by the Scoliosis Research Society. "We save and preserve quality of life."
Crawford says the surgeries orthopedists perform can make a dramatic difference for patients. For instance, a hip replacement surgery can lead to miraculous results, Crawford says. "It can make a 65-or-70-year-old with arthritis feel like they're 40 again, because they don't hurt and they can do things," he explains.
This career path can be extraordinarily fulfilling, he adds, noting that when he has performed successful operations on young women who suffered from scoliosis, he has been thrilled by how much more confident those young women became afterward.
Why Should You Consider Becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon?
Dr. Bradford Tucker, an associate professor with the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says that one of the aspects of orthopedic surgery that he enjoys is that it can lead to immediate, tangible positive results. Tucker, who in addition to his role as a professor also works as a physician for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Phillies, says he appreciates the mechanical and tactile aspect of orthopedic surgery.
"It's almost like carpentry in a way, because we're dealing with the framework of the human body and fixing it," he says. Many orthopedic surgeons are drawn to this area of medicine because they enjoy sports and physical activities, so they like the idea of helping someone who is crippled to become mobile. "They want to help other people get back to an active lifestyle," Tucker explains.
Dr. Vahan Cepkinian, a California-based orthopedic surgeon who works for the Adventist Health Physicians Network, adds that orthopedics is a type of medicine that is constantly evolving due to technological innovation. "New technology is developed quite steadily -- ranging from new implants to robotics," he wrote in an email. "Orthopedic surgery is certainly not for the complacent."
How Much Money Do Orthopedic Surgeons Earn?
Orthopedic surgery is the best-paying medical specialty in the U.S., according to a physician compensation report published in 2019 by Medscape, a health news and information website for health care providers. That report revealed that the average annual salary among orthopedic surgeons was $482,000.
However, orthopedic surgeons caution against choosing this medical specialty simply out of a desire for a high salary. "That shouldn't be the deciding factor when it comes to going into orthopedics," says Dr. Mark Elzik, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hand surgery and works in Orange County, California, for Providence St. Joseph Health, a network of hospitals and health clinics. "If all you care or are concerned about is how much you are going to be compensated but you hate what you do, it's going to be an awful 30 (or) 40 years for you. Really, you have to enjoy it."
Elzik says that, though orthopedic surgeons are paid well compared to other doctors, they also tend to work longer hours than their physician peers.
What Training Is Necessary to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon?
Four years of medical school, plus a minimum of five years of residency, is mandatory for anyone who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, and it's typical to also do a fellowship focused on a specific type of orthopedic surgery, such as foot and ankle surgery, according to experts. "After four grueling years of medical school, you will have five more grueling years of residency. ... Most residents now do one or two extra years of fellowship in order to specialize or just get more training," Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon with Texas Orthopedics, Sports & Rehabilitation Associates, a medical practice in Austin, Texas, wrote in an email. "Orthopedic residencies are rigorous, to say the least. It's a moderately physically demanding specialty, but more importantly, it is psychologically demanding. The musculoskeletal system is complicated and vast. There is a lot to learn, and competency in it takes time."
How Hard Is It to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon?
Becoming an orthopedic surgeon is exceedingly difficult, and many medical students who apply for an orthopedic surgery residency do not get placed in that type of residency program. Statistics from the National Resident Matching Program, a nonprofit organization that assigns medical students to medical residencies, show that this year there were 1,037 individuals who applied for an orthopedic surgery residency, and only 755 of those people were offered one.
Moreover, orthopedic surgery faculty say that only the strongest medical students typically apply for an orthopedic surgery residency. Tucker says that orthopedic surgery residency directors have so many medical students to choose from that they can select people who have extraordinary credentials in all respects, including high licensing exam scores, impressive medical school grades, strong recommendation letters, excellent performance in clinical rotations and stellar research experiences.
What Type of Medical School Is Ideal for an Aspiring Orthopedic Surgeon?
Elzik says it is prudent for an aspiring orthopedic surgeon to seek out a medical school with a solid track record of placing students in orthopedic surgery residencies. "Looking at a school's match list and seeing where the students matched and into what fields is going to be really big, big help," he says.
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