What Is General Surgery?

Team of nurses and surgeons in surgery
Surgeons in action. Chris Ryan/Getty Images

General surgery, despite the name, is actually a surgical specialty. General surgeons not only perform surgeries for a wide range of common ailments, but are also responsible for patient care before, during, and after surgery. All surgeons must start their training in general surgery; many then go on to focus on another specialty.

What Is Included in General Surgery?

According to the American Board of Surgery, general surgeons are trained to operate on the:

  • Alimentary Tract (esophagus and related organs)
  • Abdomen and its Contents
  • Breast, Skin and Soft Tissue
  • Endocrine System

In addition, general surgeons are expected to have knowledge and experience in:

  • Surgical Critical Care
  • Surgical Oncology
  • Trauma

Despite the term "general", surgeons that practice general surgery are highly skilled surgeons that typically operate on common abdominal complaints including appendicitis, hernias, gallbladder surgeries, stomach and intestinal issues. This focus on the abdomen is not absolute, as general surgeons may specialize in a type of surgery, such as treating cancer or burns, that requires the surgeon to be able to perform procedures on multiple areas of the body.

Why Do Doctors Choose to Go Into General Surgery?

General surgeons can be found practicing many types of surgery, and the broad-based nature of their education makes it possible for general surgeons to perform many procedures in the performance of their jobs. Some may choose to go on to a specialty, but others enjoy the variety that makes up the day of a true general surgeon and practice a wide assortment of procedures. 

General surgeons also have the flexibility to work in a variety of settings, with many different types of medical teams and patients. According to the American Board of Surgery:

The certified general surgeon also is expected to have knowledge and skills for diseases requiring team-based interdisciplinary care, including related leadership competencies. Certified general surgeons additionally must possess knowledge of the unique clinical needs of the following specific patient groups:

  • Terminally ill patients, to include palliative care and pain management; nutritional deficiency; cachexia in patients with malignant and chronic conditions; and counseling and support for end-of-life decisions and care.
  • Morbidly obese patients, to include metabolic derangements; surgical and non-surgical interventions for weight loss (bariatrics); and counseling of patient and families.
  • Geriatric surgical patients, to include management of comorbid chronic diseases.
  • Culturally diverse and vulnerable patient populations.

Training as a Surgeon

Medical Students who want to be surgeons first apply to a surgical residency program. Once they graduate from medical school they are, officially, a physician, but their education is less than half way to completion at this point. A surgical residency begins in the first year of residency, which is called the intern year, followed by at least four additional years of surgical training. This is the training all surgeons go through on the path to their final surgical career.

During their training, general surgeons are required to complete 48 weeks of full-time clinical activity. They may complete some training in another specialty, but no more than 12 months may be spent focused allocated to any one surgical specialty other than general surgery.

At the completion of the intern year and four subsequent years of training, the surgeon is fully trained in general surgery and can then choose their path to either practice in the specialty of general surgery or to pursue a surgical specialty, and several more years of training as surgical resident or fellow.

Any surgeon who works in a surgical specialty, such as cardiothoracic surgery, starts their training with five years of general surgery training followed by additional years of specialty training.

A Word From Verywell

A general surgeon is a highly skilled surgeon, and the word "general" should not be confused with a lack of specific training. It is more appropriate to think of the general surgeon as a specialist in commonly performed procedures, such as appendectomies and other procedures. While having a surgical specialty requires more training in a specific type of surgery, the general surgeon is a very important part of the healthcare team and is essential in the treatment of common illnesses that can be cured with surgery.

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