How to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon

In-demand specialty with only 25,000 practitioners in the U.S.

Learn how to become an orthopedic surgeon.
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You would probably have to credit the TV show "Grey's Anatomy" for recasting orthopedics as something more than just a career about splints and pins. Today, it is considered one of more cutting-edge, in-demand fields in the medical profession.

Like the show's Dr. Callie Torres, an orthopedic surgeon is a highly specialized physician devoted to the treatment of injuries and disorders of the musculoskeletal system. This not only involves bones but the joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons, and nerves that coordinate movement and regulate pain.

Beyond general orthopedic surgery, there are also orthopedists who specialize in specific body parts, such as the foot and ankle or spine. Others choose sub-specialties like pediatrics, sports medicine or reconstructive surgery.

Educational Requirements

In order to become an orthopedic surgeon, you would first need to complete a four-year undergraduate program which would include one year of biology, two years of chemistry, and one year of physics.

Upon the successful completion your Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), you would start applying to the medical schools of choice. The admissions process typically involves two steps, a preliminary and secondary round, followed by interviews from interested colleges.

While many applicants assume that admissions boards only look for individuals with a clear picture of their professional trajectory, most, in fact, are searching for well-rounded individuals who have devoted time to community work and have a broad range of interests. Acceptance rates vary, but most schools admit only around five percent to 10 percent of applicants.

Medical school is comprised of four years of intense education. The first two years are classroom-based; the final two are predominantly hospital-based. During this time, you would need to pass the National Board exams which are taken two parts: one after the second year of medical school and the other after the third. Each consists of a full day of testing.

Based on your educational track, you would the graduate as either an MD (doctor of medicine) or DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine).

Orthopedics Residency

But it doesn't stop there. If you plan to become an orthopedic surgeon, you would need to start applying for an orthopedic residency in the fall of your final year. If a hospital is interested in you, an interview would be scheduled.

Next comes Match Day, the one day in which all medical students find out where they have been accepted for residency.

The first year of residency (called an internship) would begin on or around July 1. A residency program would consist of four years of focused study on the fundamentals of orthopedic surgery. During this time, you would rotate through the major sub-specialties in several different hospitals to get a practical exposure to various surgical techniques and technologies.

Upon completion of your residency, you could then apply for a one-year fellowship if you choose. This would allow you to explore sub-specialties such as pediatric orthopedics or orthopedic oncology (involving bone cancers).

Board certification would follow the completion of your orthopedic training. To become board certified, you would need to undergo a peer-review process and pass both oral and written exams given by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery.

Once certification is granted, surgeons must undergo a rigorous re-certification process every 10 years. So, in addition to running a practice, you would need to devote time to studying and attending continuing medical education courses to ensure that your knowledge is updated and in line with current practices.

Employment Opportunities

All told, you would be looking at investing 14 years of your life to become a fully board-certified orthopedic surgeon. Beyond the personal sense of accomplishment, you would become a part of the most lucrative field of practice in the medical profession today.

According to the annual Merritt Hawkins and Associates' Review of Physician Recruiting Incentives, orthopedic surgeons topped the 2016 list with an average starting salary of $521,000. This was due, in part, to the dearth of professionals in the field, with little more than 25,000 practicing orthopedic surgeons in all of the U.S.

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