General Surgeon: Your Comprehensive Surgical Care Expert

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What is a general surgeon?

A general surgeon specializes in the surgical care of diseases, injuries and deformities affecting the abdomen, breasts, digestive tract, endocrine system, and skin. General surgeons treat many conditions affecting adults and children, including appendicitis, bowel obstruction, breast and colon cancer, gallstones, hernias, and pancreatitis.

A general surgeon typically: 

  • Evaluates the patient's medical history and determines if surgery is necessary

  • Teaches patients the surgical procedure to be performed, how to prepare for surgery, and what to expect during recovery

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Performs exploratory procedures, such as endoscopy, colonoscopy and laparoscopy

  • Performs a variety of surgeries, such as appendectomy, weight loss surgery, bowel obstruction repair, gallbladder removal, hemorrhoid repair, hernia repair, mastectomy, and thyroidectomy

General surgeons may also be known by their area of expertise, such as gastrointestinal surgeon, cancer surgeon, or trauma surgeon. General surgeons may also be referred to simply as a surgeon.

Who should see a general surgeon?

Many people are referred to a general surgeon after being diagnosed with a medical condition or illness. A general surgeon can evaluate your condition and determine if surgery is right for you. Pediatric surgeons are available to treat conditions affecting children, including birth defects, childhood cancers, fetal deformities, and childhood injuries.

When should you see a general surgeon?

Consider seeing a general surgeon if you are diagnosed with any of the following conditions: 

  • Appendicitis

  • Birth defects, such as congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH) and defects in the stomach or intestines

  • Female reproductive conditions affecting the uterus or other pelvic organs

  • Gallstones, gallbladder inflammation, or pancreatitis

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

  • Gastrointestinal problems, such as Crohn's disease or bowel obstruction

  • Hemorrhoid or other rectal or anal conditions

  • Hernia including inguinal, hiatal and umbilical hernias

  • Pancreatic cancer, bile duct cancer, stomach cancer, or thyroid cancer

  • Traumatic injury

What does a general surgeon treat?

A general surgeon treats a variety of conditions and disorders including:

What does a general surgeon test?

A general surgeon can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic tests. These tests include:

  • Biopsy, which is removal of organ or soft tissue to be examined under a microscope

  • Endoscopy and colonoscopy to diagnose and treat gastrointestinal (GI) problems

  • Gastrointestinal tests including lower GI series (barium enema), upper GI series (barium swallow), and fecal occult blood test, which detects traces of blood in the stool

  • Heart studies including EKG (electrocardiogram, or ECG) and cardiac stress test

  • Imaging tests including X-rays, CT (computed tomography) scans, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

  • Physical exam and medical history to determine if you are physically ready or healthy enough for surgery 

What procedures and treatments does a general surgeon do?

General surgeons perform various procedures and treatments to manage their patient's health. A general surgeon will use minimally invasive techniques, including laparoscopic surgery and robot-assisted surgery, when appropriate.

Common surgical procedures include: 

Some specially trained general surgeons perform organ transplants, including liver, kidney, pancreas, and small bowel transplant. Other general surgeons may specialize in hand and wrist surgery. This may include wrist fusion or wrist replacement, finger joint fusion or finger joint replacement, and carpal tunnel release.

General surgeon training and certification

Your primary care doctor or other specialist may refer you to a well-respected general surgeon in your area. Regardless of whether you have a referral or are selecting a surgeon on your own, be sure the surgeon is board certified in general surgery. The surgeon should have documented experience in the procedure you need.

Board certification confirms the doctor has completed several years of residency training in general surgery and has demonstrated expertise in many different types of surgery with a high level of skill. The American Board of Surgery and the American Osteopathic Board of Surgery certify physicians in general surgery. A doctor must participate in the Board’s ongoing certification program to keep their certification current.

Other search tips

When you are researching candidate surgeons, consider the quality of care at the hospital where the surgeon will perform your surgery. Healthgrades rates hospitals based on surgical complications, patient safety, and other results. Choose a surgeon with privileges at a hospital that rates highly in the procedure or area of surgical care you need, such as gallbladder or stomach surgery. This will improve the likelihood of having a successful outcome.

If you need surgery or want to consult with an expert, find a general surgeon near you with the qualifications, availability, and hospital affiliations you want. The surgeon’s patient ratings and reviews will help you narrow your choices.

Doctors who earn board certification in surgery can pursue certification in another specialty or subspecialty:

  • Complex general surgical oncology focuses on the diagnosis and care of patients with complex cancer or cancer that involves multiple organ systems.

  • Hand surgery focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of hand, wrist and forearm conditions including injuries.

  • Hospice and palliative medicine focuses on preventing and relieving suffering in patients who have a critical or terminal illness.

  • Pediatric surgery focuses on the diagnosis and surgical care of newborn babies, children, and adolescents.

  • Surgical critical care focuses on the surgical care of patients with acute life-threatening or potentially life-threatening diseases or conditions including trauma.

  • Vascular surgery focuses on the diagnosis and surgical treatment of diseases and disorders affecting the arteries, veins, and lymphatic system, with the exception of blood vessels supplying the brain and heart.

General surgeons may obtain additional training and become experts in other areas including bariatric surgery and minimally invasive surgery.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Primary Certification in General Surgery. American Osteopathic Board of Surgery. https://certification.osteopathic.org/surgery/certification-process-overview/general-surgery/

  2. About ABS Certification. The American Board of Surgery. http://www.absurgery.org/default.jsp?publiccertprocess

  3. Your Surgeon is Certified by the American Board of Surgery. American Board of Surgery. http://www.absurgery.org/xfer/YourSurgeonIsCertified.pdf

  4. Surgery (General Surgery) American Board of Medical Specialties. http://www.certificationmatters.org/abms-member-boards/surgery.aspx