A physician, medical practitioner or medical doctor who practices medicine, and is concerned with maintaining or restoring human health through the study, diagnosis, and treatment of disease and injury. This is accomplished through a detailed knowledge of anatomy, physiology, diseases and treatment — the science of medicine — and its applied practice — the art or craft of medicine.


The word physician φύσις (physis) and its derived adjective physikos, meaning "nature" and "natural". From this, amongst other derivatives came the Vulgar Latin physicus, which meant a medical practitioner. After the Norman Conquest, the word entered Middle English via Old French fisicien, as early as 1100. Originally, physician meant a practitioner of physic (pronounced with a hard C). This archaic noun had entered Middle English by 1300 (via Old French fisique). Physic meant the art or science of treatment with drugs or medications (as opposed to surgery), and was later used both as a verb and also to describe the medications themselves.

In English, there have been many synonyms for physician, both old and new, with some semantic variation. The noun phrase medical practitioner is perhaps the most widely understood and neutral synonym. Medical practitioner is lengthy but inclusive: it covers both medical specialists and general practitioners (family physician, family practitioner), and historically would include physicians (in the narrow sense), surgeons or apothecaries. In England, apothecaries historically included those who now would be called general practitioners and pharmacists.

The term doctor (medical doctor) is older and shorter (see doctor of medicine), but can be confused with holders of other academic doctorates. Doctor (gen.: doctoris) means teacher in Latin and is an agentive noun derived from the verb docere ('teach'). In French, médecin (doctor, physician) is a contraction of docteur médecin, a direct equivalent of doctor of medicine. In current French idiom, the term toubib, is now a synonym, derived from Arabic طبيب (tabīb, physician).

The Greek word ἰατρός (iatros, doctor or healer) is often translated as physician. Ἱατρός is not preserved directly in English, but occurs in such formations as psychiatrist (translates from Greek as healer of the soul), podiatrist (foot healer), and iatrogenic disease (a disease caused by medical treatment). In Latin, medicus meant much what physician or doctor does now. Compare these translations of a well-known proverb (the nouns are in vocative case):

Ἰατρέ, θεράπευσον σεαυτόν (Greek New Testament: Luke, 4:23)
Medice, cura tiepsum (from the Vulgate, early 5th century)
Physician, heal thyself (from the Authorized King James Version, 1611)
The ancient Romans also had the word archiater, for court physician. archiater derives from the ancient Greek ἀρχιατρός (from ἄρχω + ἰατρός, chief healer). By contraction, this title has given modern German its word for physician: arzt.

Leech and leechcraft are archaic English words respectively for doctor and medicine. The Old English word for "physician", læċe, which is related to Old High German lāhhi and Old Irish liaig, lives on as the modern English word leech, as these particular creatures were formerly much used by the medical profession. Cognate forms for leech exist in modern Swedish as läkare, in modern Norwegian as lege and in Finnish as lääkäri; these Scandinavian words still translate as doctor or physician rather than as a blood-sucking parasite.

Meanings of the word physician

Physician as any medical practitioner

In North America, physician is now widely used in the broad sense, and applies to any legally qualified and licensed practitioner of medicine. In the United States, the term physician is used to describe those holding the degrees of Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and in certain jurisdictions, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND or NMD) and also Podiatry (DPM) , It is also used to describe the holders of medical degrees from other countries when practicing in North America (in the UK and other Commonwealth countries, such degrees are typically MB BS, MB BChir etc which are are equivalent to the US MD degree). The American Medical Association, established in 1847, uses physician in this broad sense to describe all its members.

Physician and Surgeon

Around the world, the combined term "Physician and Surgeon" is a venerable way to describe either a general practitioner, or else any medical practitioner irrespective of specialty. This usage still shows the older, narrower meaning of physician and preserves the old difference between a physician, as a practitioner of physic, and a surgeon. The term may be used by state medical boards in the United States of America, and by equivalent bodies in provinces of Canada, to describe any medical practitioner.

Other designations

Internationally, there are variations in the D.O. degree and osteopaths are recognized as physicians in 48 countries. Osteopathic education includes teaching manipulative medicine.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are not described as physicians; the American College of Nurse Practitioners do not describe themselves this way. They are classified as allied healthcare professionals. Some nurse practitioners may perform work similar to that of some physicians, especially in primary care, but of a lesser scope. Physician Assistants are classed as advance practice clinicians.

Social role of physicians

Physicians are traditionally considered to be members of a learned profession, because of the extensive training requirements, and also because of the occupation's special ethical and legal duties. Physicians are often members, or fellows of professional organizations such as the Royal College of Physicians in the United Kingdom.

The practice of medicine has ancient associations with religion and magic; see article on History of medicine.

Physicians commonly enjoy high social status, often combined with expectations of a high and stable income and job security. However, medical practitioners often work long and inflexible hours, with shifts at unsociable times, and may earn less than other professionals whose education is of comparable length.

Education and training

Medical education and career pathways for doctors vary considerably across the world.

All medical practitioners

In all developed countries, entry-level medical education programs are tertiary-level courses, undertaken at a medical school attached to a university. Depending on jurisdiction and university, entry may follow directly from secondary school or require pre-requisite undergraduate education. The former commonly take five or six years to complete. Programs that require previous undergraduate education (typically a three or four year degree, often in Science) are usually four or five years in length. Hence, gaining a basic medical degree may typically take from five to eight years, depending on jurisdiction and university.

Following completion of entry-level training, newly graduated medical practitioners are often required to undertake a period of supervised practice before full registration is granted, typically one or two years. This may be referred to as "internship" or "conditional registration".

Medical practitioners hold a medical degree specific to the university from which they graduated. This degree qualifies the medical practitioner to become licensed or registered under the laws of that particular country, and sometimes of several countries, subject to requirements for internship or conditional registration.

Specialists in internal medicine

After graduation, medical practitioners often undertake further training in a particular field, to become a medical specialist. In North America, this is often referred to as residency training; in Commonwealth countries, such trainees are often called registrars.

This further training typically takes from three to six years, depending on specialty and jurisdiction. Primary care is increasingly recognized as a specialty, and residency programmes in this field are becoming common. A medical practitioner who completes specialist training in internal medicine (or in one of its sub-specialties) is an internist, or a physician in the older, narrower sense.

In some jurisdictions, specialty training is begun immediately following completion of entry-level training, or even before. In other jurisdictions, junior medical doctors must undertake generalist (un-streamed) training for one or more years before commencing specialization. Hence, depending on jurisdiction, a specialist physician (internist) often does not achieve recognition as a specialist until twelve or more years after commencing basic medical training — five to eight years at university to obtain a basic medical qualification, and up to another six years to become a specialist.


In most jurisdictions, physicians (in either sense of the word) need government permission to practice. Such permission is intended to promote public safety, and often to protect the public purse, as medical care is commonly subsidized by national governments.

All medical practitioners

Among the English-speaking countries, this process is known either as licensure as in the United States, or as registration in the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries, and Ireland. Synonyms in use elsewhere include colegiación in Spain, ishi menkyo in Japan, autorisasjon in Norway, Approbation in Germany, and "άδεια εργασίας" in Greece. In France, Italy and Portugal, civilian physicians must be members of the Order of Physicians to practice medicine.

In some countries, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, the profession largely regulates itself, with the government affirming the regulating body's authority. The best known example of this is probably the General Medical Council of Britain. In all countries, the regulating authorities will revoke permission to practice in cases of malpractice or serious misconduct.

In the large English-speaking federations (USA, Canada, Australia), the licensing or registration of medical practitioners is done at a state or provincial level. Australian states usually have a "Medical Board," while Canadian provinces usually have a "College of Physicians and Surgeons." All American states have an agency which is usually called the "Medical Board", although there are alternate names such as "Board of Medicine," "Board of Medical Examiners", "Board of Medical Licensure", "Board of Healing Arts" or some other variation. After graduating from medical school, physicians who wish to practice in the USA usually take standardized exams, such as the USMLE for MDs, COMLEX-USA for osteopathic physicians, the NBDE exams for dentists, the NBPME exams for podiatrists, or the NPLEX for naturopaths which enable them to obtain a certificate to practice from the appropriate state agency.

Specialists in internal medicine

Most countries have some method of officially recognizing specialist qualifications in all branches of medicine, including internal medicine. Sometimes, this aims to promote public safety by restricting the use of hazardous treatments. Other reasons for regulating specialists may include standardization of recognition for hospital employment and restriction on which practitioners are entitled to receive higher insurance payments for specialist services.

See also


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