What Does an Orthopaedic Surgeon Do? A Look at This Surgical Specialty


Over time, you’ve come to the realization that the activities you most enjoy result in something tangible. Perhaps you get a thrill from scoring goals on the soccer field. Or maybe you crave the sense of accomplishment you feel after putting your skills to use building a model structure. Involvement in these types of hobbies could actually inform your eventual career.

You already know you want to become a doctor, but you might be questioning which specialty you want to pursue. Believe it or not, your desire to do work that yields clear results could make you a great fit for orthopaedic surgery. Dr. Nickolas Garbis, orthopaedic shoulder and elbow surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center, clarifies what this career entails.

“Orthopaedic surgeons are doctors who treat diseases of bone, muscles, ligaments, and tendons,” he offers. “There are a variety of different treatments an orthopaedic surgeon can use depending on the condition.”

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"Orthopaedic surgeons are doctors who treat diseases of bone, muscles, ligaments, and tendons."

But what does an orthopaedic surgeon do, more specifically? And what steps do you need to take to become one? Get ready to further your research on this role.

What does an orthopaedic surgeon do in a typical day?

It’s fairly common for orthopaedic surgeons to divide their time between outpatient clinic work and performing surgeries in the operating room (OR). This is certainly the case for Dr. Derek Ochiai, sports medicine surgeon at Nirschl Orthopaedic Center.

“I treat bone and joint conditions that either require conservative treatment—such as medications, bracing, casting, and physical therapy—or surgery,” he offers.

Much of Dr. Ochiai’s work as a sports medicine surgeon involves arthroscopic procedures, which are performed by making small incisions to insert tiny cameras and surgical instruments into joints. Some of his most common procedures focus on treating injuries of the hip, rotator cuff, and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

But orthopaedic surgeons in a different subspecialty may perform different procedures. Dr. Garbis, for example, focuses mostly on arthroscopic shoulder and elbow surgery as well as shoulder replacement.

"Some of my time is spent completing patient notes and operating reports."

“Some of my time is spent completing patient notes and operating reports,” Dr. Garbis elaborates. “In addition, I am sometimes on call, which involves covering acute patients in a hospital or traumas that may come in.”

Of course, your typical responsibilities will largely depend on your area of focus. But some of the most common issues orthopaedic surgeons treat include:

• Broken bones
• Painful joints
• Sports injuries
• Bone tumors
• Carpal tunnel
• Osteoporosis
• Arthritis
• Hip dysplasia

What are the most important skills orthopaedic surgeons need?

Orthopaedic surgeons perform incredibly precise procedures. As Dr. Ochiai points out, many of them are performed with fiber-optic cameras and very small instruments. It’s essential that you have fine motor skills for this type of work.

All physicians need to stay up to date on the latest techniques—and orthopaedic surgeons are no exception. In fact, they’ve experienced quite a few changes over the decades. Arthroscopic surgery is one example, but there are others as well. Dr. Garbis points out that he’s seen significant advances in visualization techniques and even the use of 3D printing to create patient-specific treatments during his time in the field.

Orthopaedic surgeons also spend a fair amount of time consulting with patients, so they need to have strong interpersonal skills and exercise their empathy. Luckily, there are numerous ways for physicians to develop good bedside manner if it’s something they need to work on.

Additionally, the best orthopaedic surgeons maintain a sense of humility. With so many subspecialties, you might not always be the best surgeon to treat a patient’s condition. Dr. Ochiai says you should be able to recognize whether referring the patient to someone else will ensure they receive the best care.

How do you become an orthopaedic surgeon?

It should come as no surprise that becoming an orthopaedic surgeon requires a substantial amount of education and training. After obtaining your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to graduate from a four-year medical school, pass each portion of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), and secure a medical residency.

Because postgraduate programs for orthopaedic surgery are incredibly competitive, you’ll need to work hard to secure strong USMLE scores and make a good impression during your residency interviews. Dr. Ochiai recommends students interested in this field do everything they can to secure elective clinical rotations in orthopaedics during their third year. It’s also a good idea to try to find a physician in the field who you can shadow when you’re still in the early stages of medical school.

"Orthopaedic surgery is traditionally very hard to match in."

“Orthopaedic surgery is traditionally very hard to match in,” Dr. Ochiai offers. “So knowing that this is a field you want to get into early allows for more time to prepare and maximize your chances.”

While they aren’t required to, many orthopaedic surgeons continue their training after completing an initial residency. You can subspecialize by completing a fellowship accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) in the following:

• Adult reconstructive surgery
• Foot and ankle surgery
• Hand surgery
• Musculoskeletal oncology
• Orthopaedic sports medicine
• Orthopaedic surgery of the spine
• Orthopaedic trauma
• Pediatric orthopaedic surgery
• Shoulder and elbow surgery, which is accredited under either orthopaedic sports medicine or adult reconstructive surgery

How much do orthopaedic surgeons make?

Generally speaking, specialists earn a higher salary than primary care physicians. This is particularly true of orthopaedic surgeons. The most recent compensation report from Medscape shows they’re the top earners among physicians, averaging an annual salary of $482,000.

Like other physicians, orthopaedic surgeons should also expect plenty of employment opportunities in the future. The greatest need for doctors is in the primary care space, but there’s a shortage of surgeons as well. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts a shortage of 14,300 to 23,400 surgical specialists by 2032.

Start down the path to this surgical field

These specialists clearly do a lot to help people feel better, move more easily, and maintain active lifestyles. What exactly does an orthopaedic surgeon do to help their patients achieve these results? Intricate surgeries certainly play an important role, but it’s probably clear that these physicians do a lot of important work outside the OR as well.

If you’re curious about the possibility of improving patients’ lives as an orthopaedic surgeon, you’ll need to start with the basics. Getting accepted to medical school is the first step. You’ll need to do everything from taking the MCAT to attending interviews during the admission process.

Medical school interviews are especially important. How you respond to the committee’s questions can make the difference between gaining an acceptance letter and not. Prepare for these conversations by checking out our article, “10 Medical School Interview Questions All Future MDs Should Expect to Answer.”

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