How Much Training Has Your Doctor Had?

Residents, Interns, Fellows, and Physicians Have Different Levels Of Training

Physicians on rounds
When a group of physicians enters your hospital room, how much training do you think they've had?. Image © laflor / Vetta / Getty

Have you ever been in the hospital and your doctor asked if residents could observe while he or she completed a physical exam? It can be somewhat intimidating to have all these folks in white coats surrounding your bed, even though they are pleasant and there to help you.

You probably wonder who these folks are and what training they've received so far. What are their qualifications? They are often studying under your physician, and are the next generation of doctors.

You are doing a service to yourself, to them, and to the community when you allow them to observe your physician and learn about your case. But that doesn't mean you don't have a right to understand their qualifications, or even question their presence.


Physicians undergo a rigorous and lengthy amount of education before they are licensed. Specialists (such as gastroenterologists) require even more schooling and training than, for instance, family practitioners. Before they complete their education, most physicians apply for their medical license. A medical license is needed, by law, in order to practice medicine.

In the U.S., all physicians must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, either a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA). Their undergraduate education is typically geared toward the sciences (biology, chemistry, physiology) and may be considered a 'pre-med' program.

After obtaining a four-year degree, students continue on to medical school and start another two years of classes followed by two years of rotations, which is working with patients. When they graduate, students receive a degree of either medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). Graduates have earned the title of "doctor," but are not permitted to practice medicine on their own.

Your Doctor Cheat Sheet

  • Medical Student: Student in a graduate-level medical program
  • Resident: Medical school graduate undergoing on-the-job training
  • Intern: First-year resident, usually not yet licensed to practice medicine
  • Fellow: Residency graduate undergoing continued subspecialty training
  • Physician: Person with medical degree; may or may not yet be licensed to practice medicine

Residents and Interns

Having completed eight years of higher education, physicians that enter a residency program are known as residents. Resident programs range from three to seven years in length, depending on the chosen specialty. During their first year of residency, residents will be called interns.

During a residency program, a resident will apply for a medical license. After being granted a license and completing a residency program, a physician may decide to enter into practice, which could include fields such as general surgery or family practice. At this time, a physician may also choose to continue their training for a subspecialty, such as gastroenterology or rheumatology, which will begin during more training, which is called a fellowship. Board certification (a medical "stamp of approval") may be granted after the completion of a residency, but it is not required.

It is typical, however, for a physician to receive board certification before moving on to subspecialty training.


To become trained for a specialty, physicians enter a fellowship for one to three years and are known as fellows. After completing the fellowship, a subspecialist physician has undergone a minimum of 12 years of formal classroom education and practical training under the supervision of a licensed physician.

Continuing Medical Education

In order to keep current in the always changing medical field, physicians must continue their education throughout their career. Physicians may also be required to complete a certain amount of continuing medical education (CME) credits per year to maintain their medical license, hospital privileges, and professional organization memberships.

For those physicians who have board certification, recertification is also part of CME.

Now, the next time a doctor introduces himself or herself as a resident or fellow, you'll have a better idea of how much training he or she has had. Patients have the right to ask medical professionals about their qualifications. If you are uncomfortable being observed by residents or students, discuss your feelings with the hospital staff at the time of admittance (or ask your patient advocate to do so.)


American Medical Association. “Requirements for Becoming a Physician” American Medical Association. 2013. 15 Dec 2015.

American College of Gastroenterology. “What is a Gastroenterologist?” ACG. 2006. 15 Dec 2015.

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