How to Become a Medical Doctor

A doctor and a surgeon in discussion

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Working as a physician or medical doctor is a very rewarding career both financially and intrinsically. However, becoming a doctor requires many years of hard work including applying, studying, testing, writing, researching, practicing, and training. Therefore, it is best to start preparing as soon as possible, preferably in high school, for optimum success in your quest to become a doctor of medicine.

Before you begin the steps to becoming a doctor, you must graduate from high school. It is best to have the highest grades possible, as well as engaging in a variety of activities that show leadership, teamwork, and a balance of interests. The higher your GPA, and the more you participate and excel in activities, the better your chances will be of getting accepted into the colleges of your choice. If you can take advanced classes, particularly in science or math, this will help you as well.

Education and Testing After High School Before Practicing Medicine

After graduating from high school, here are your next steps:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree. (Required time is about four years.) Obtain a bachelor's degree from a university. You do not have to major in biology or pre-med, but if you major in a related science or math subject, you will be more well-prepared for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).
  2. Take and pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Scores required for acceptance vary according to the supply and demand of medical students applying, how you rank in the field of applicants, and the number of slots available in the medical school for which you are applying. The more popular or prestigious the medical school is, the higher the MCAT scores needed to get accepted.
  3. Graduate from medical school. (Required time is about four years.) You can choose from a variety of accredited medical schools, but you must obtain a medical degree such as an M.D. (allopathic medical degree) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) from an American medical school, or equivalent degree from an international medical school. If you are a graduate of an international medical school, you must also complete the Educations Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) process before starting your residency training program.
  4. Complete a medical residency training program. (Required time is three to five years, depending on specialty.) The length of the medical residency training program you must complete varies according to the medical specialty in which you are training. Residency programs are a minimum of three years for primary care and some medical specialties. At this point in your career, you will be treating patients but will be under the direction of an attending physician. You will receive a stipend during residency.
  5. Pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The USMLE is a three-part exam required to obtain a medical license in the U.S. Each part of the exam takes one to two days to complete. The total time is three to six days, plus the time needed in advance for studying.
  6. Complete fellowship training. (Required time is zero to three years, depending on specialty.) Not all medical doctors must do fellowship training. Certain medical specialties require fellowship training, such as cardiology and gastroenterology, which are actually sub-specialties of internal medicine. Some fellowships are optional, such as certain types of surgical training. A fellowship training program may be as short as six months or up to three years in length. You will be treating patients under the direction of an attending physician and you will receive a stipend.
  7. Get a state medical license. (Takes three to nine months after application.) In addition to your U.S. medical license, you must also have a state medical license in each state where you plan to practice. After completing the application and paying the fee, the turn-around time can be anywhere from three months to nine months, depending on the state, and depending on any issues that may arise during processing such as incomplete records or background issues.
  8. Pass the medical board exam for your specialty. (Required time is about two days, plus study time.) The American Board of Medical Specialties certifies physicians in their respective specialty. Board certification used to be an option, but most employers (hospitals, particularly) are now requiring board certification. The board-certification process consists of a written exam and an oral exam. Board certification exams are usually only given once or twice per year, so most physicians take the test in the late summer or fall after completing residency or fellowship training in June or July.
  9. Obtain local credentialing and hospital privileges (Required time is from a few hours to a few weeks.) This step is required to allow a medical doctor to admit patients to a hospital or treat patients in a hospital, including rounding on them and operating on them, depending on the medical specialty. Obtaining privileges at a hospital usually entails filling out an application packet, and sometimes a personal interview with the hospital board members or hospital administration is also required. Credentialing can take weeks as every step of your education, training, licensing, certification, employment, and references are checked from the primary sources.
  10. Obtain provider numbers and DEA numbers (Required time is a few hours.) Your employer can usually help with this step. Provider numbers are required from insurance companies such as Medicare, or Blue Cross/Blue Shield in order to be reimbursed for medical services rendered. A DEA number is required in order to prescribe drugs such as narcotics.

Now you are able to practice medicine as a full-fledged physician. You will finally begin to earn the salary expected for a physician in your specialty.

A Word From Verywell

Before you invest all of the time and money required to become a physician, be sure that it is the best health career for you. If you do not have the time or money to invest to become a medical doctor, you may want to consider another top medical career.

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