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FAQ: What Is a Surgeon's Schedule Like?

Surgeons are highly respected and skilled medical professionals who perform surgical procedures. Surgeons train for several years to become fully licensed professionals and invest their time throughout their careers to stay up to date with the latest medical advancements in their field. Because surgeons work for over forty hours a week, it's important to understand their work schedules before committing to becoming one of these professionals. In this article, we address frequently asked questions about a surgeon's work environment.

What does a surgeon do?

A surgeon is a medical professional who evaluates patients and performs extensive medical procedures. The surgeries that surgeons perform can range from elective procedures, like plastic surgery to emergency services such as heart surgery. Surgeons are highly respected professionals who each choose a specialty area to study. This allows them to become experts in their field and focus on a particular health issue or body part instead of needing to be an expert on all surgical procedures.

Here's a list of some common specialties for surgeons:

General surgery

General surgeons focus on conditions and surgeries relating to general areas of the body. These surgeons perform a variety of surgeries and are often able to assist surgeons of other specialties during their procedures. General surgeons commonly treat issues such as appendicitis, hernias and intestinal issues.

Neurosurgery

Neurosurgeons perform surgical procedures involving the brain and nervous system. Also called brain surgeons, these professionals perform both emergency and scheduled services. Their most common procedures include tumor removal, head injuries and spinal issues.

Related: What Is a Neurosurgeon?

Critical care surgery

Critical care surgeons, also known as trauma surgeons, treat emergency conditions. These professionals often treat patients alongside surgeons of other specialties and provide initial care for patients who need to see a different type of surgeon later. Critical care surgeons often treat burns, car crash injuries and other types of trauma-related injuries.

Orthopedic surgery

Orthopedic surgeons are medical professionals who treat conditions relating to the muscular system, bones and joints. These professionals often perform surgeries to treat broken bones, remove tumors, and correct bone and muscle growth deformities. Many orthopedic surgeons specialize in areas such as sports medicine, oncology and hand and foot care.

Pediatric surgery

Pediatric surgeons are general surgeons who received additional training to perform surgery on children and young adults. These professionals work with patients ranging from newborns to teenagers to diagnose, treat and provide post-operation care for a variety of conditions. Pediatric surgeons often treat birth defects, trauma injuries and fetal issues.

Thoracic surgery

Thoracic surgeons are medical professionals who treat conditions relating to the chest, including heart conditions and esophagus and lung issues. The conditions these professionals most commonly treat are cardiac dysrhythmias and issues with the respiratory system. Thoracic surgeons often have an additional specialty, such as adult heart surgery, pediatric heart surgery or general thoracic surgery.

Related: How To Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

What is a surgeon's work schedule like?

Surgeons work a set amount of hours in a hospital or private clinic as well as on-call hours, which refers to specific times in which they must be available to come in to work but don't have to physically be there unless requested. A surgeon's on-call schedule varies depending on where they work and their specialty. For example, a surgeon who works in a private practice likely has more on-call hours than a surgeon working in a hospital, because private practices usually employ fewer doctors.

Sometimes, on-call surgeons may only need to provide a consultation over the phone, while others may need to commute to work to perform a surgery. Often, a surgeon's specialty affects whether they need to go to work or just provide assistance over the phone. For example, a neurosurgeon usually has to commute to work if needed while on-call because their work sometimes requires a more experienced professional than the work of a general surgeon.

Related: On-Call Employees: Definition and Examples

How many hours do surgeons work?

Many surgeons work 50-60 hours per week, which does not include their on-call hours. Most hospitals and private practices don't allow surgeons to work over 80 hours a week, including time on-call or researching. Surgeons often have specific days in which they perform scheduled surgeries, while the rest of their time is spent researching and providing emergency care.

Because many surgeries require several hours to complete, a surgeon's shifts are often longer than the standard eight-hour workday. The length of a professional's shift sometimes depends on these factors:

Experience

Surgeons with more experience usually work longer shifts than those with a year or less of experience. This is because more experienced professionals are more secure in their skill set and are more comfortable working long shifts. A surgeon's shift may be anywhere from 12 to 28 hours long. In emergency situations or public health crises, their shifts may be longer. To make up for their long shifts, surgeons often work less than six days a week, with an average weekly schedule of four days.

Specialty

Certain specialties often have longer hours than others, because of the subject of their expertise. For example, trauma and pediatric surgeons work longer shifts because their expertise relates to a larger demographic of people and conditions. Inversely, a thoracic surgeon works with people with chest and heart conditions, which is a lower amount of patients than those who see trauma surgeons due to accidents.

Employer

Where a surgeon works is also a major factor in their work schedule and hours. Surgeons who work in hospitals have more co-workers than those in private practice, which means they can spend less time on-call. However, surgeons who work at a private practice often have set hours of operation. While they may spend more time on-call and need to go to work during emergencies, many private practices operate with normal business hours. Hospitals are always open, which means a few surgeons must be present at the hospital at all times.

What are some ways surgeons can improve work-life balance?

Becoming a surgeon requires years of dedication and the ability to work long and fast-paced shifts. While this career can be demanding, it's also a very rewarding and lucrative field to pursue. It's important as a medical professional to ensure you address your own mental and physical health needs. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is especially helpful in achieving this. Here are some tips for surgeons to improve their work-life balance:

Maintain a healthy diet

Maintaining a healthy diet for your physical and mental needs is important for preserving your physical health. Since the components of a healthy diet often depend on a person's specific medical history, lifestyle and body type, consider researching the foods and portions nutritionists recommend for your demographic. Try to pack a lunch or dinner from home whenever possible to avoid buying takeout food during your shift and consider eating high-energy foods.

Exercise regularly

Try to set an exercise routine for yourself. This helps you build endurance and strength, which may help you with your job duties. Try to find out what type of exercise fits best with your lifestyle and personality. Some may prefer cardio-based workouts while others prefer yoga or aerobics. You may even be able to exercise at work during break periods by taking a walk or finding a private area to work out.

Schedule time to be with friends and family

It is important for your mental health to be around those you love. During your time off work, try to schedule hang-outs with your friends and family. Consider having a pre-scheduled night for a dinner with your family or friends. It's also important to schedule time off work for important events in your loved ones' lives, such as a graduation ceremony or housewarming party.

Related: 12 Tips for Staying Healthy in the Workplace

Ask for help

If you feel like you're struggling, ask for help. Most employers have the resources to make accommodations to preserve the physical and mental wellbeing of their employees. It's also helpful to talk to others about how you're feeling and ask your friends and family if you need them to perform a favor for you.

Take breaks

Be sure to take breaks throughout your work shift. This helps you regain focus and gives you time to relax during long shifts. Consider taking a break to drink coffee in between patient visits or share a meal with your colleagues. Some doctors also take breaks during their shifts to sleep in the staff's break rooms.

Sleep well

Try to commit to healthy sleep practices. This may mean limiting your screen time before going to bed or setting a bedtime for yourself. Being well-rested improves your work and allows you to stay mentally and physically healthy. If you're having trouble sleeping, research possible remedies or visit a physician for help.

Adjust on-call hours

Depending on your employer and experience level, you may be able to negotiate your on-call hours. This allows you to work fewer on-call hours, which means you have more free time. If you want a permanent adjustment to your on-call hours, speak with your supervisor. If you just want a temporary break, consider reaching out to your co-workers to see if they're willing to cover an on-call shift for you.