What Does a General Surgeon Do?

by Beth Greenwood

One in five practicing physicians in the United States is a surgeon, and general surgeons are one of the largest surgical specialties, according to the American College of Surgeons Health Policy Research Institute, or ACSHPRI. General surgeons are more common than any other surgical specialty except obstetrics and gynecology. Despite the numbers, however, positions for general surgeons grew only 0.2 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to the institute.


Education in general surgery is at the core of every surgical specialty. Some specialties even require that a surgeon become certified in general surgery before she can go on for training in a specialty. General surgeons need four years of college, four years of medical school and a minimum of five years in residency. They must be licensed in all states, and many are also board-certified. Some might also have training in a particular area of surgery even though they are not certified in that area.

Overall Duties

All general surgeons are required to perform comprehensive general surgery examinations. The surgeon takes a medical history and performs a detailed physical examination of the patient, then makes a diagnosis based on the information she has obtained. She develops a treatment plan specific to the patient that incorporates her findings, and modifies it as necessary. A patient who has vascular disease, for example, might require special attention to potential complications during surgery. The surgeon shares her recommendations with the patient, performs the surgery and manages the postoperative care.

Surgeries and Specialized Knowledge

The surgeries that a general surgeon performs can include almost any organ or body system, according to the American Board of Surgery. General surgery residency training covers the abdomen and its contents; breast, skin and soft tissue; pediatric surgery; head and neck surgery; burn treatment; and vascular surgery. In addition to surgery, a general surgeon must be able to assess and treat trauma, soft tissue wounds, cysts, abscesses, abdominal wall hernias, breast conditions, varicose veins and peptic ulcers. Required knowledge for a general surgeon includes the basics of anatomy, physiology and pathology, as well as how wounds heal, fluid management, treatment of shock, resuscitation and the management of postoperative pain.

Performing Surgery

The practice of general surgery often overlaps with specialty surgical practice, especially in rural areas, according to a November 2012 article in “The DO.” A hysterectomy, or removal of a woman’s uterus, is normally a procedure performed by a gynecologist. General surgeons, however, can also perform hysterectomies. Other surgeries that a general surgeon commonly performs include gall bladder removals, hernia repairs, tumor excisions and gastric-bypass surgery. General surgeons use both conventional techniques and laparoscopy -- a minimally invasive surgical technique that uses a flexible tube with a light on the end and miniaturized surgical instruments.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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