What Is the Difference Between Residents and Attending Physicians?

The Hierarchy of Hospital Staff

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A resident is someone who has graduated from medical school and is completing a post-graduate training program. An attending physician is a board-certified physician who has completed their residency training. Residents are supervised by attending physicians.

This article offers a breakdown of the people in your hospital care team who are either board-certified physicians or those on track to becoming one.

Guide to the Doctor Hierarchy

Verywell / Emily Roberts

Residents vs. Attending Physicians

In the United States, a person who decides to become a doctor will undergo training at a medical school before embarking on further training at a teaching hospital.

When medical students graduate, they become first-year residents, also known as interns. After completing the first year of post-graduate training, they are called residents. When they are finished with post-graduate training, they become attending physicians.

Some may pursue additional training as a fellow before becoming an attending.

In the United States, the hierarchy of doctors in a hospital is as follows:

  1. Attending physician
  2. Fellow (optional)
  3. Resident
  4. Intern
  5. Medical Student

Medical Students

Medical students are those who have obtained a bachelor's degree and have been accepted to medical school after meeting certain requirements, including passing the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT).

The first two years of their four-year program is devoted to classroom studies. During the latter two years, time is largely spent in a hospital- or clinic-based setting.

Upon completion of medical school, medical students graduate with either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree.

It is only at this point that they are referred to as physicians, even though their training is not yet complete.

Interns and Residents

Medical school graduates then enter a residency program in a hospital, clinic, or doctor's office.

The goal of residency—also referred to as a graduate medical education (GME) program—is to continue training in a specialized field of medicine. A medical residency can last anywhere from two to three years for a family doctor to seven or more years for a surgeon.

First-year residents are referred to as interns. After that, they are known as resident doctors, resident physicians, or simply "residents."

Residents provide direct care under the supervision of an attending physician or senior resident.

Residents can choose different specialties to train in after graduation. Some potential specialties include:

  • Emergency medicine
  • General surgery
  • Family practice
  • Pediatrics
  • Anesthesiology
  • Diagnostic radiology


A fellow is someone who has completed their residency and elects to pursue further training. A fellowship is optional but is required to practice certain subspecialties.

An example is a general surgeon who wants to pursue a career in pediatric brain (neuro) surgery or heart/lung (cardiothoracic) surgery.

There are fellowships in many fields of medicine, including:

Attending Physicians

An attending physician is a medical doctor who has completed all residency training. They are board-certified or eligible to practice independently in a particular specialty.

An attending physician typically supervises fellows, residents, and medical students and may also be a professor at an affiliated medical school.  Attending physicians have final responsibility, legally or otherwise, for all patient care—even if the care is given by a subordinate.

An attending physician is considered an expert in their field of medicine or surgery. Attendings are also referred to as staff physicians, supervising physicians, rendering doctors, or simply "attendings."

Depending on the field of medicine, the route from medical student to attending can take seven years or more. Some specialties can take 14 years or more of post-undergraduate studies and training before credentials are fully obtained.

When you receive care from a resident, you are also receiving care from the resident's supervising physician. This means you'll benefit from the experience and knowledge of both providers.  

Hospital Hierarchy

You can sometimes tell where a person fits in the hierarchy based on the length of their lab coats. The shortest white coats are worn by medical students. Residents typically wear longer coats, while attending physicians will wear full-length coats.

Even so, a lab coat is not an absolute indication of a person's status as other health professionals also wear them, including nurse practitioners and phlebotomists (technicians who draw blood). Today, many health professionals of all ranks also wear scrubs.


People training to be a medical doctor are given different titles as they progress through the ranks. They begin as medical students, then progress to interns, residents, and fellows. Once residency and fellowship trainings are complete, a person can become a board-certified attending physician.

From the time of enrollment in medical school to board certification, it can take anywhere from seven to 14 years (or more) to become an attending physician.

A Word From Verywell

It can be confusing to keep all of the different types of doctors straight when you're in a hospital.

When in doubt, look at a staff member's ID badge or just ask what their role is. It is your right to know who does what and which member of the hospital staff is ultimately in charge.

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5 Sources
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