Finding the Right Doctor: Difference Between Surgeons and Physicians

February 16, 2022
William Hanner D.O.

As you consider your health care journey, you may be asking yourself some very common questions about whom to see about your health care needs. Patients often wonder: Do I need a primary care physician, or do I need a surgeon? Should I see a general practitioner or a specialist? If I see a surgeon first, can they help me with my general needs and diagnose me?

These are all great questions to ask! Finding the answers will empower you to make the right decisions as you seek solutions that help you to improve your health. And you may be surprised to discover that all of these types of doctors can be a good place to start to diagnose and establish care plans for your personal wellness.

Surgeons vs. Physicians: The Basic Differences

You are likely wondering what is the difference between a surgeon and a physician? Let us start with the most important similarity between the two: 

Both surgeons and physicians are doctors—well-trained ones. Surgeons, primary care doctors and specialists all undergo essentially the same course of studies. This means they have attended medical school, studied all the medical courses needed for a foundation in providing medical care, and then have gone on to develop their preferred specialty. 

The Role of the Primary Care Physician

A primary doctor provides patients with assistance for their everyday needs throughout their lifetime. As the first point of contact in the health care journey, primary care doctors address day-to-day needs, common illnesses, mental health input, annual physical exams, and coordination of specialist services a patient may need.

You’ll probably come across several other terms related to primary care as you research which doctor you would like to see for your health needs. These simple definitions will help you navigate your choices:

Family Doctor

A family physician is a type of primary care doctor who serves the whole family—children, adults, and the elderly. Family doctors provide everyday health guidance, treat the day-to-day needs of patients of all ages, and provide broad, foundational health services such as flu shots, annual physicals, and maintenance of chronic conditions.

Internal Medicine

Internists concentrate on treating common and complex illnesses in adults. Like family doctors and primary care physicians, a doctor who practices internal medicine is often the first medical professional a patient visits with to check their general health, address health concerns, and seek advice on specialists when needed. Internists are highly knowledgeable about how the body’s internal systems work and how different conditions can affect one another, but they do not normally perform surgery.

General Practitioner

A general practitioner offers treatment and health care solutions for a wide range of general needs a patient may have. Primary care physicians, family doctors, and internists all fit into the general practitioner category. 


A specialist is a medical professional who focuses on specific fields of study and concentrates on a specific set of conditions associated with that field. A cardiologist, for example, focuses their training and treatment to aid those with concerns and conditions of the heart. A specialist is typically the doctor to see for health needs that require deep expertise in a specific area.

The Role of the Surgeon

Like primary care physicians, are there different types of surgeons? And the answer is yes, there are. Just as with other doctors, both general and specialist surgeons are well-trained to address the health concerns of the patients they serve.

General Surgeons

A general surgeon operates on all parts of the body and performs a variety of common surgical procedures. General surgeons perform a range of health care solutions—such as treatment of tumors, organ removal (such as appendix and gallbladder), and hernia repair.

Specialist Surgeons

A specialist surgeon concentrates their surgical skills on a specific part, region or system of the body, focusing on that specific area and its care. For example, a specialist might focus strictly on the treatment of hands, lungs, vascular care, or cancer.

Surgical Team

When surgery is performed, a team of medical professionals will be involved in the patient’s care. This includes the surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and nurses. Depending on the type of surgery, the team may be smaller or larger, and the individual members all collaborate in ensuring the surgery is performed as planned.

Ambulatory Team

An ambulatory team is the treatment team that cares for patients who are receiving outpatient care. The group will include a physician, nurses, and other medical personnel. If the procedure is an outpatient surgery, there will likely be a surgeon and anesthesiologist present.

What It Means to Be Board Certified

As you do research to find the right doctor, you will probably see references to board certification. It may surprise you to know this, but not all doctors are board certified. 

To practice medicine in general, a doctor must complete their internship, residency, and pass a state licensing exam. To become board certified, the doctor must take additional steps and training and exams to be certified as a specialist in their chosen areas.

While patients do not have to select a board certified doctor, certification is a valuable way to compare two physicians to see which has gained more experience in a particular area of medicine.

Can a Surgeon Do the Work of a Physician or Primary Care Doctor?

Simply put, all surgeons are physicians—but not all physicians are surgeons.

Because general surgeons must be skilled and knowledgeable about the full range of a patient’s bodily systems, they are definitely well-informed about the needs a patient may consider consulting a family doctor or internist about. They can offer guidance when patients have questions about everyday health needs, just as a physician can. 

You may know already of some examples of this—the most obvious is the obstetrician & gynecologist, who both provides primary care for female patients and also surgery for the female reproductive system.

Do Surgeons Diagnose?

Yes! Depending on the patient’s situation and needs, a surgeon can help to determine what problem is causing the concerns the patient has and help the patient decide on the proper course of treatment.

Do Physicians and Surgeons Work Well Together? 

With so many doctors in your area, you might be wondering what happens when you need to see more than one doctor. What if you visit an internal medicine practitioner, and then want to visit a surgeon? Do these different types of doctors collaborate? Or do primary care physicians and surgeons have rivalries that can affect your care? You might even be wondering about doctors vs. nurses, and how well they work together, or if one or the other works harder to help you.

We understand why you might ask these questions—after all, health care can feel overwhelming to navigate, especially when you are deciding the best care plan to fit your personal preferences, comfort level, and needs. You want and deserve attentive medical care. 

The simple answer is this:

A caring doctor—no matter what type of doctor they are—wants the optimal health results for their patient. And the same goes for nurses and the other members of a medical team that is serving you. 

Attentive, compassionate care is certainly our goal at Midtown Surgical & Skin Institute. Your needs are at the forefront of your care—and they should be the focus of your healthcare. Surgeons, physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals are committed to working together to treat patients and provide medical solutions that improve the patients’ overall health and well-being.

Get Personal, Compassionate Health Care in Tulsa

When you’re ready to choose the best doctor for your care in the Tulsa area, Midtown Surgical & Skin Institute is here to serve you. Dr. William Hanner and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will listen with compassion and provide practical solutions, so your care plan fits your preferences—and get you back to better health.

Contact us today to learn more or set up a consultation. We look forward to seeing you soon!

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