Attending: What Is An Attending Physician?

Understanding the Different Roles Physicians Fill

Three surgeons working in surgery/OR
Three Surgeons at Work. Image: © Janice Airey/Getty Images

Definition: An attending physician is a doctor who has completed their training and is practicing independently in their chosen specialty. This term is typically used at teaching facilities to differentiate fully credentialed senior level physicians from junior physicians who are still completing their higher education.  

In the hierarchy of physicians, the attending is at the top under only the physicians who run the hospital itself, while the medical student is at the bottom.

 

Attendings may also be known as staff physicians or a rendering doctor, and may be trained as an MD or a DO. 

What an Attending Does

An attending is a fully credentialed physician who has completed their training and is able to practice medicine independently.  An attending is considered an expert in their field of medicine or surgery.

These physicians are typically working at a facility that provides education to physicians and may play an active role in that education. An attending typically has their own practice in their specialty that may include teaching residents and fellows.  An attending may also oversee the practice and education of medical students.

A surgical attending, for example, performs surgery as part of their job.  As an attending, they may have interns, residents or fellows in the operating room with them, educating them on how to perform surgery.  They may also provide lecture style education, and often include physicians in training when they round on patients, which is when physicians check on their patients daily.

 

​Attending may have additional titles that indicate their role in the education of physicians.  They may have the title of professor, associate professor or could potentially be a Dean at a medical school.  These titles may vary from institution to institution and vary based on the role the physician takes in the academic portion of medicine, and how much of their work is devoted to education rather than independent practice.

 

Understanding the Differences: Fellows, Residents, Interns and Medical Students

Who Can Be an Attending?

A physician can be an attending if they have completed their education, show competency in their field of medicine or surgery, have a desire to play a role in the education of students and are hired into the role.  Generally speaking, an attending has completed a four year undergraduate degree, medical school, a residency program, and potentially a fellowship to further their expertise.  They have a medical license in the state in which they practice and are board certified in at least one area of medicine or surgery.

Examples: After the resident asked me many questions about my health, the attending also reviewed my medical history and made the final decisions about my plan of care.

The attending performed the surgery with the intern watching the procedure in preparation for her general surgery residency.

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