General Surgeon

A general surgeon performs most of the common surgery operations you might need at some point in your lifetime. You might see a general surgeon if you have gallstones or appendicitis, or if you need a hernia or prolapse repaired.


What is a general surgeon?

A general surgeon is a doctor and a surgeon who’s trained to care for the whole patient in all the ways necessary, including surgery. They diagnose and manage a broad array of medical conditions before, during and after surgery (preoperative, operative and postoperative care), often as leaders of a team.

General surgery is one of 14 surgical specialties recognized by the American College of Surgeons. While some surgical specialties focus on the technicalities of the heart or brain, a general surgeon is more likely to operate on your abdominal organs or musculoskeletal system, or take care of multiple injuries. 


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What do general surgeons treat?

General surgeons are like family doctors who can also do surgery, if necessary. They treat a wide variety of conditions, and that treatment includes a wide variety of procedures. If a general surgeon doesn’t feel completely confident in treating a particular condition, they’ll know when to refer you to a specialist.


Some of the conditions general surgeons treat include:

How do you become a general surgeon? 

General surgeons are doctors first, meaning they’ve already completed four years of medical school and earned a degree. To become surgeons, they go on to complete at least five more years in a progressive surgical residency program. Progressive means that completing each year qualifies you for the next.

After completing training, general surgeons must pass two board exams to become certified. First is the qualifying exam, a multiple-choice exam. After passing the qualifying exam, you’re qualified to take the certifying exam, which is an oral exam. When you pass the certifying exam, you become certified. 

What does a general surgeon study?

General surgeons study the nine principal components of general surgery, which include:

  1. The gastrointestinal tract.
  2. The abdominal and pelvic organs.
  3. Breasts, skin and soft tissues.
  4. Head and neck.
  5. Cardiovascular system.
  6. Endocrine system.
  7. Surgical oncology (cancer treatment).
  8. Trauma (including musculoskeletal, head and hand injuries).
  9. Critical care and emergency surgeries.

During training, general surgeons must spend at least four-and-a-half of their five years working with patients. At least three years must be concerned with the nine principal components of surgery. They can’t spend more than 12 months in any surgical specialty or six months in any nonsurgical discipline.


What do general surgeons do?

Once a general surgeon is in practice, the procedures they routinely do may vary, depending on where they work. Some larger medical centers might delegate certain procedures to surgical specialists. In centers that don’t have as many specialists, general surgeons might do more of everything. 


Some of the common surgical procedures you might expect a general surgeon to perform include:


General surgeons today train in the latest technology-assisted operative techniques, including:

  • Endoscopy.
  • Laparoscopic surgery.
  • Robotic surgery.

Endoscopy allows a surgeon to perform small operations without cutting through your skin or tissues. Instead, they operate with long, narrow tools through an endoscope, a long, flexible tube with a video camera on the end. The endoscope enters your body through your throat (upper endoscopy) or through your anus (colonoscopy). It projects video to a screen, and your surgeon operates guided by the screen.

Common endoscopic surgery procedures include:

  • Removing polyps or tumors (polypectomy).
  • Removing tissue samples (biopsy).
  • Cutting into a clenched muscle to release it (myotomy).
Laparoscopic surgery

Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive surgery technique. A surgeon accesses your abdominal organs through small “keyhole” incisions no more than half an inch long. They place a laparoscope, which is a type of endoscope, through one of the holes to visualize the space. The camera projects to a screen, and the surgeon operates with long, narrow tools through another hole, guided by the screen. 

Operations that general surgeons commonly perform laparoscopically include: 

Robotic surgery

Robotic surgery is a type of laparoscopic surgery. It uses a laparoscope and long, narrow tools through small keyhole incisions. The difference is that robotic arms operate the tools. The surgeon operates the robotic arms from a computer console within the operating room. General surgeons may learn robotic surgery in their standard training, or they may take additional training to learn it, such as a fellowship.

Additional Common Questions

What’s the difference between a general surgeon and a doctor (physician)?

All surgeons are doctors (physicians), but not all doctors are surgeons. Surgeons are doctors who complete additional training and earn certification to practice surgery. In general, surgery means operating on a person’s inner parts, such as their organs, tissues and bones, to treat injuries or diseases.

A general practitioner or primary care physician (PCP) is a doctor who practices general medicine instead of choosing one specialty. They generally don’t perform surgery. A general surgeon is a doctor who has chosen to specialize in surgery. They practice general surgery instead of choosing a surgical specialty. 

How long does it take to become a general surgeon?

If you’re in the U.S., you’ll need a bachelor’s degree (four years), then a medical degree (four years), followed by surgical residency (five years) before you can become certified as a general surgeon. That’s a minimum of 13 years in higher education, plus however long it takes you to pass the board exams.

What’s the difference between a pediatric surgeon and a general surgeon?

All pediatric surgeons are general surgeons, but not all general surgeons are pediatric surgeons. A pediatric surgeon is a general surgeon who’s completed additional training to specialize in treating children. It’s similar to a pediatrician, except that a pediatric surgeon can also perform surgeries. 

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A general surgeon is like a general doctor with extra powers — powers to fix a wide range of ailments in the operating room. It takes a lot of training to learn everything a surgeon has to know and master all the skills they have to master. But it leads to a rewarding career — one in which no two days are alike. 

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 09/25/2023.

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