Since September 2021, there are over 1 million active physicians in the United States. As the onslaught of COVID-19 persists, the medical field remains to be at a shortage of doctors for a country with a population of over 331 million. The American Association of Medical colleges predicts that by 2032, the US will be short of over 122,000 physicians.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of practicing doctors has already been dwindling. Clinician burnout is prevalent among doctors, with 40% of physicians experiencing symptoms of burnout once a week. The pandemic aggravated the harsh work routines of doctors, pushing many to reduce their hours of work or opt for early retirement.
However, amid various COVID variant mutations and failing health protocols, the number of medical school applicants saw a 30% increase since 2010-2011. Over 100,000 students enrolled in medical school in 2020. Joining the ranks of professional doctors is a long and hard journey, but with enough determination and a thorough plan, you too can become a doctor of the next generation. In this article, we will walk you through a step-by-step guide to becoming a professional doctor in the United States.
Steps to Become a Doctor in the United States
1. Complete your undergraduate education.
To become a doctor in the United States, the first step is to complete at least a four-year undergraduate degree program before proceeding to four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency. Finishing your undergraduate degree program is the first step to kickstart your way to becoming a doctor.
Medical school does not require medical school hopefuls to choose an undergraduate degree that is heavy on the sciences. Rather, you are free to take any degree your heart desires. It is highly recommended that you take pre-med classes so as not to fall behind in medical school. These include courses in English, calculus, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and biology.
2. Review and pass the MCAT.
Medical schools in the US make use of the Medical College Admissions Test to assess applicants suitable for enrolling in their programs. Allot some time every day to prepare for the MCAT, as this test cannot be handled with crammed studying. The MCAT is your gold ticket to medical school, so give it your all and pass the examination.
3. Apply for medical schools.
Yes, you read that right—schools. Most medical schools have low acceptance rates. This fierce competition for admissions should encourage you to apply for multiple schools as much as possible. While there is no rush in applying, it is best to jot down the medical schools you are targeting to apply for.
Whenever you are ready to send in your applications, be careful in filling up the American Medical College Application Service, or AMCAS. The AMCAS is your sole application document for all the medical schools you will be applying to.
4. Enroll in medical school.
Aside from your transcript of records from your undergraduate days, and passing the MCAT, another step to becoming a doctor in the US is to enroll in a medical school. Medical schools will also assess your interpersonal skills and communication skills through interviews. Impress the panel with cohesive and thought-out answers to their questions. This shall leave a lasting impression on them and increase your chances of passing.
Medical schools have differences that you must know about. If you want to specialize in research work, a research-oriented school will bring you one step closer to the laboratory. Primary care specialists on the other hand deal with hands-on care and treatment of the patients.
5. Pass the first 2 parts of the national licensing examinations.
Whether you chose to take the path to become a medical doctor with an M.D. degree, or a doctor of osteopathic medicine with a D.O. degree, you will have to pass the licensing examinations. M.D. students will take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Meanwhile, D.O. students will have to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States or COMLEX-USA. They can also opt to take the USMLE.
These licensing examinations are divided into three parts. Experts highly recommend that medical students take the first two portions of the exam while they are still in medical school.
6. Apply for a residency program.
By the time students reach their fourth year in medical school, they will start looking into specialty options they are passionate about, such as anesthesiology or ophthalmology. Applying for a residency program is another essential step to becoming a doctor in the United States. To apply for residency in the United States, you will most likely take part in the National Resident Matching Program. If you are looking into specializing in a highly competitive field like neurological surgery, you may have to utilize a matching program specifically catering to that medical specialty.
7. Complete medical school and begin your residency.
As soon as you get your medical degree, you are officially a doctor. Congratulations! It is time to embark on a new journey as a medical resident. Residency typically runs for 3 to 7 years in the United States. Before you can open your clinic, you must first serve as a resident. Doctors working in residency work full-time and are also paid in full.
8. Pass the final part of the national licensing exams.
As your medical residency program nears completion, you can focus on passing the third and final part of the national licensing examination. Whether the USMLE, the COMLEX-USA, or both, these national licensing examinations will determine your qualifications to perform as a doctor effectively.
9. Earn a general medical license.
In the United States, a general medical license degree is among the minimum requirements for a doctor to practice medicine. Medical licensure ensures that you as a doctor have a credible background in medicine and are capable of diagnosing patients under your jurisdiction. Licensure is a mandatory procedure, whereas board certifications are a voluntary process.
10. Work towards your board certifications.
Unlike medical licensure, board certifications are entirely up to your preference to accomplish. Board certifications are specific to the specialties and/or subspecialties that you practice. Each certification comes with its own set of requirements. Generally, board certifications consist of rigorous written exams and the occasional oral examination.
The American Board of Medical Specialties facilitates board certifications. Upon passing your boards, you will be recognized as a diplomate of that certifying board. There are 24 certifying boards in the United States, all of which evaluate doctors’ skills and abilities to deliver safe services to their patients within the zone of their specialty.
Pursuing a career in medicine is more than just the money and prestige it brings to your name. Before becoming a fully-fledged doctor, you will have to dedicate years of hard work studying and improving in your choice of medical specialty. Work hours in the medical field are long and unpredictable. Burnout is common among doctors. Not to mention, there is the impending doom of doctor shortages in the near future.
But of course, becoming a doctor also comes with some of life’s best triumphs. As a doctor, you get to help people feel better and overcome their ailments. There is nothing else more rewarding than patients thanking you for your service and expressing their gratitude for trusting you with their health.
I hope that this article on Steps to Become a Doctor in the United States was helpful. To know more information about studying abroad, check out the Available Programs for International Students!