How to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on January 20, 2024

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon is a long but rewarding path that allows you to help patients regain mobility and live pain-free. First and foremost, you must earn an undergraduate degree, typically focusing on pre-med studies in biology, chemistry, anatomy, and other sciences. Next, you’ll need to apply to medical school, which involves taking the MCAT exam. After four years of intense medical training, you can start a 5-year orthopedic surgery residency program to gain hands-on experience in the operating room and treating musculoskeletal conditions. Throughout this arduous but fulfilling journey, you must demonstrate strong analytical abilities and top-notch bedside manner. If you have the dedication and desire, a career as an orthopedic surgeon awaits you. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), orthopedic surgery can be incredibly rewarding for people who wish to “make a difference in patients’ lives.”

What is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the musculoskeletal system. This system includes bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves. Orthopedic surgeons use both nonsurgical and surgical means to treat trauma, spine diseases, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors, and congenital disorders of the musculoskeletal system.

Orthopedic surgeons have extensive training in this specialty. After completing four years of medical school and five years of orthopedic surgery residency training, they are experts at treating injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system in patients of all ages, from newborns with congenital defects to the elderly with arthritis and osteoporosis. Their broad medical expertise allows them to accurately diagnose complex conditions of the bones, muscles, and joints and determine the most effective solutions. This can range from prescribing medications and rehabilitation services to performing minimally invasive surgery.

Some orthopedic surgeons choose to subspecialize in a particular area such as:

No matter their subspecialty, the focus for all orthopedic surgeons is restoring mobility, reducing pain, and giving their patients the best quality of life possible. Their skill and expertise provide patients with a wide range of nonsurgical and surgical treatment options for optimal recovery.

What do Orthopedic Surgeons Do?

Orthopedic surgeons specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal system disorders. Their responsibilities typically include:

In summary, orthopedic surgeons have extensive medical training to diagnose and treat a wide range of musculoskeletal problems, often correcting issues that cause chronic pain and mobility limitations in order to improve patients’ quality of life. Useful references from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons can be found here and here.

Educational Requirements to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon

Pursuing an Undergraduate Degree

Most aspiring orthopedic surgeons will need to complete a Bachelor’s degree at an accredited 4-year university before applying to medical school. Some common majors for pre-med students include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or physics. However, you can major in any subject as long as you complete the prerequisite coursework required by most medical schools, which includes:

In addition to sciences, take humanities courses to become a well-rounded applicant. Maintain a high GPA – most medical schools require at least a 3.0.

Applying to Medical School

The next step is to earn a Medical Degree (MD) which takes 4 years to complete. This AMA article outlines the medical school application timeline and process.

Key components include:

Focus on accredited medical school programs in the U.S. or Canada. The AAMC has a search tool to find MD-granting medical schools.

Completing a Residency in Orthopedic Surgery

After earning your MD, the next requirement is to complete an accredited residency training program in orthopedic surgery. This 5-year residency will provide supervised training in the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and conditions.

To get accepted into a competitive orthopedic surgery residency program, students should:

After completing medical training, aspiring surgeons must pass a board certification exam through the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery to practice as an orthopedic surgeon.

Postgraduate Training for Orthopedic Surgeons

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon requires extensive postgraduate training beyond medical school. Here are the key steps:

In summary, the road to becoming an orthopedic surgeon is long, challenging, and involves many years of postgraduate residency training. However, it enables orthopedic surgeons to have fulfilling careers using cutting-edge techniques to restore mobility and reduce chronic pain for patients with musculoskeletal disorders.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Orthopedic Surgeon

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon requires dedication, perseverance, and the development of specific skills and qualities. It takes over a decade of education and training to gain the necessary medical knowledge and surgical abilities. Additionally, orthopedic surgeons must cultivate certain personal attributes that allow them to prosper in this demanding yet rewarding field.

Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills

Orthopedic surgery is a complex field that requires strong critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Surgeons must adeptly assess patient symptoms, synthesize complex medical data like X-rays and MRI results, diagnose conditions, and determine the most effective treatment plans. They need to apply an analytical approach throughout surgery as they carefully manipulate delicate bones, muscles, and nerves. Top orthopedic surgeons have finely tuned logical reasoning skills.

Technical Skill and Dexterity

Orthopedic surgery procedures require extremely advanced technical abilities and manual dexterity. Surgeons use specialized instruments and techniques to realign bones, graft tissue, replace joints, repair ligaments, and more during lengthy and complex operations. They must have mastered the hand-eye coordination and movement control needed to avoid damaging nerves and tissues.

Stamina

Performing orthopedic surgery demands high levels of concentration for prolonged periods. Procedures frequently last several hours at a time. Surgeons must remain focused and precise despite physical and mental fatigue. Their work schedule also tends to be rigorous, so orthopedic surgeons need strong stamina to manage. Having excellent fitness and health helps orthopedic surgeons develop the robust energy levels their occupation requires.

Communication Skills

Along with technical prowess, outstanding communication abilities are vital for orthopedic surgeons. They must compassionately communicate with patients to understand symptoms, explain diagnoses, describe surgical procedures, and provide recommendations. Orthopedic surgeons also lead operating teams and frequently collaborate with other healthcare professionals to coordinate patient care. Furthermore, they must clearly convey complex medical information in patient charts and reports. Excellent listening, speaking, and writing skills help orthopedic surgeons succeed.

Orthopedic Surgeon Salary

Orthopedic Surgeons are some of the highest-paid physicians. According to salary data from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), the average annual salary for orthopedic surgeons in the United States ranges from $411,000 for entry-level positions up to $665,000 for senior and leadership roles.

Orthopedic surgery is a highly competitive specialty, and surgeons are well compensated for the advanced skills, long hours, and high costs associated with running an orthopedic practice. Salaries can vary depending on geographic location, type of practice, subspecialty expertise, reputation, and years in practice.

Generally speaking, as orthopedic surgeons gain more experience, their salaries increase as well. This table provides average salary data for orthopedic surgeons based on years in practice:

Years ExperienceAverage Salary
Less than 5 years$300,000-$350,000
5-10 years$375,000-$450,000
10-20 years$425,000-$525,000
More than 20 years$500,000-$665,000

As shown, those just starting out in orthopedics can expect to earn around $300k, while senior surgeons with over 20 years under their belt have average earnings of well over half a million dollars per year. The most experienced orthopedic surgeons often take on leadership roles as department chairs or service chiefs, which boosts salaries even higher.

Of course, actual incomes depend on factors like location, subspecialty, hours worked, academic vs. private practice, and more. But generally, orthopedic surgery is extremely lucrative, and earning potential rises steadily over an orthopedist’s career.

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon opens up a variety of career opportunities and room for advancement. As a specialty within medicine, orthopedics continues to be in high demand as the population ages and needs joint replacements or sports medicine treatments.

Once finishing medical school and residency training, new orthopedic surgeons often start out working in group practices with other orthopedists or surgeons. This allows them to develop their skills while having colleagues to collaborate with and learn from. Many choose to subspecialize further through fellowship training in areas like hand, spine, shoulder, sports medicine, or foot and ankle. Pursuing a subspecialty fellowship provides orthopedic surgeons the chance to gain more expertise in treating specific conditions.

After gaining initial experience, those focused on academic medicine may work their way up the ranks to become professors of orthopedic surgery at medical schools while still seeing patients. This career path allows for teaching the next generation of surgeons. According to research published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, there is also ample opportunity for leadership development, research, and innovation in academic medicine.

Additionally, over time many orthopedic surgeons open their own private practice. This allows them the freedom and flexibility to shape their career path, patient base, and the types of orthopedic medicine they want to practice. For example, someone could choose to open a specialty sports medicine clinic with an on-site physical therapy facility.

Resources

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What does an Orthopedic Surgeon do?

An Orthopedic Surgeon specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the musculoskeletal system. This includes bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves. They use both nonsurgical and surgical means to treat a variety of conditions like trauma, spine diseases, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors, and congenital disorders of the musculoskeletal system.

What is the educational path to becoming an Orthopedic Surgeon?

First, you need to earn an undergraduate degree, typically in a science-related field. Then, you must complete four years of medical school and five years of orthopedic surgery residency training. After this, some orthopedic surgeons choose to subspecialize in a particular area through 1-2 years of fellowship training.

How long does it take to become an Orthopedic Surgeon?

It typically takes at least 13 years of education and training after high school to become an Orthopedic Surgeon. This includes a 4-year undergraduate degree, 4 years of medical school, and a 5-year orthopedic surgery residency.

What skills are needed to be an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Orthopedic Surgeons need strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills, technical skill and dexterity, stamina, and excellent communication skills. They must be able to diagnose and treat a wide range of musculoskeletal problems, often correcting issues that cause chronic pain and mobility limitations.

What subspecialties are there in Orthopedic Surgery?

Orthopedic Surgeons can subspecialize in several areas, including sports medicine, pediatric orthopedics, spine surgery, hand and upper extremity surgery, foot and ankle surgery, and orthopedic oncology.

What is the average salary of an Orthopedic Surgeon?

According to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), the average annual salary for orthopedic surgeons in the United States ranges from $411,000 for entry-level positions up to $665,000 for senior and leadership roles. Salaries can vary depending on factors like location, type of practice, subspecialty expertise, reputation, and years in practice.

What is the job outlook for Orthopedic Surgeons?

The demand for Orthopedic Surgeons is expected to continue to grow as the population ages and needs more joint replacements or sports medicine treatments. There are opportunities in both academic and private practice settings.

Is Orthopedic Surgery a stressful job?

Orthopedic Surgery can be stressful due to the high levels of concentration required for prolonged periods during surgical procedures. However, many orthopedic surgeons find the job rewarding because of the difference they can make in improving patients’ quality of life.

What is the difference between an Orthopedic Surgeon and a Podiatrist?

While both Orthopedic Surgeons and Podiatrists treat conditions related to the foot and ankle, Orthopedic Surgeons are medical doctors who can treat the entire musculoskeletal system, perform surgery and prescribe medications. Podiatrists focus specifically on the foot and ankle, and their treatments may include surgery, physical therapy, and medications.

Can Orthopedic Surgeons specialize in more than one area?

Yes, after completing their general orthopedic surgery residency, some Orthopedic Surgeons choose to pursue additional fellowship training in more than one subspecialty. This allows them to broaden their expertise and offer a wider range of treatments to their patients.