What Does an Orthopedist Do? Your Guide To Getting Started in This Profession

Male and female orthopedists discussing test results in hospital

People who choose a career in medicine often do so out of a desire to help others who are affected by disease or injury. One of the many perks of pursuing a career in medicine is the opportunity to choose from a wide range of specialties and subspecialties. For example, you could choose to work toward becoming an orthopedic doctor, also known as an orthopedist.

What does an orthopedist do? Orthopedic doctors and surgeons assess, diagnose and treat patients who have diseases or injuries of the musculoskeletal system. This career guide explores this specialty and the process of becoming an orthopedist.

What Does an Orthopedist Do?

It’s often thought that an orthopedist primarily focuses on the diagnosis and management of sports-related injuries. Although they do treat sports injuries such as ligament tears, orthopedists can do much more than this. They also work with people with congenital conditions, work injuries and age-related health issues. Some examples include the following:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis
  • Fractures
  • Bone tumors
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Scoliosis

Orthopedists can also choose a subspecialty, such as pediatric orthopedics, sports medicine or musculoskeletal oncology.

In assessing patients and developing a treatment plan, it’s generally the goal of an orthopedist to help patients manage their health issue through the least invasive treatment option possible. For instance, an orthopedist may first recommend that patients try physical therapy, lifestyle modifications, occupational therapy and medications or medicated injections. If these noninvasive and minimally invasive treatment options aren’t sufficient, then the orthopedist may recommend surgery, assuming that there is an anatomical defect that surgery can correct.

Overview of How To Become an Orthopedist

Now that you know the answer to the question, “What does an orthopedist do?” you may have decided that this is the right career choice for you. Before pursuing a career in medicine, however, you should be aware of the intensive education and training requirements.

If you’re still in high school, start by sitting down with your guidance counselor to discuss your grades and your career goals. If you’re having trouble keeping your grades up, ask if your school offers tutoring resources. Commit to putting in the hours of studying necessary to improve or maintain your grades.

In addition, you should try to take as many math and science classes as possible, as well as any health-related courses your school may offer. Try to take advantage of any local job shadowing or volunteer opportunities at medical organizations in your community.

Soft skills are arguably just as important for aspiring doctors. To succeed in this profession, you’ll need to have excellent time management, organizational, communication and interpersonal skills. If you’re currently struggling with any of these, such as time management, your guidance counselor may be able to help you improve.

After high school, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. There is a little flexibility regarding the type of degree you can earn (see below). Then, after earning your baccalaureate degree, you’ll need to go to a four-year medical school.

After medical school, you’ll complete a residency program in orthopedics and orthopedic surgery. This will last a minimum of five years and may be comprised of multiple clinical rotations. You’ll also need to pass the medical licensing exam before officially becoming an orthopedist.

The process doesn’t quite stop there, however. Medicine requires a commitment to lifelong learning, and you’ll complete continuing education (CE) hours throughout your career. You may also decide to become a board-certified orthopedist, which will require additional exams.

Earn Your Pre-Med Degree

The first step in the process of how to become an orthopedist is to earn your undergraduate degree. You will need to earn a Bachelor of Science (BS) in a medical science subject. It’s common for aspiring doctors to earn a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine, also known as a pre-med degree. 

Before you enroll, you should choose a few medical schools that you’d like to apply to and scrutinize the list of requirements for these medical schools. Although it’s not necessary to choose a pre-med degree specifically, the degree you choose should meet the course requirements for admission to the medical schools you plan on applying to.

Each medical school has its own baccalaureate course requirements, but they generally include the following:

  • Biology
  • Physics
  • General, organic and biochemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Language arts

Of course, if you enroll in a pre-med degree program, you’ll study all of these subjects and many more. Medical science students take a deep dive into topics that all future doctors need to know, such as foundational competencies like scientific research methods and evidence-based practice.

If your pre-med degree program doesn’t quite fulfill the course requirements for the medical schools you’ve selected, you may decide to use your electives to take the additional classes that you’ll need to meet those enrollment requirements.

Go to Medical School

Once you’ve graduated with your baccalaureate degree, the next step is to apply to medical school. The selection process is rigorous regardless of which medical school you apply to. You’ll first need to take the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®), a standardized exam developed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

In addition to doing well on the MCAT, there are other possible requirements to consider, including:

  • Submitting your official transcript
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Writing an essay
  • In-person interviews

You can make yourself a more competitive candidate for admission to medical school if you can demonstrate that you have:

  • Volunteer experience
  • Completing a hands-on research project
  • Previous medical experience (e.g. job shadowing a doctor)

When you’re accepted into medical school, you can expect another four years of intensive schooling. During the first two years, you’ll spend time in classroom lectures and labs. During the final two years, you’ll complete clinical rotations at hospitals and other healthcare organizations that the medical school is affiliated with.

Complete a Residency as an Orthopedist

After graduating from medical school, the next step is to complete a residency in your specialty area at a hospital or clinic.

A medical residency program can range from three to seven years in length. However, the minimum length for an orthopedist is five years because orthopedics requires a surgical component. During your residency program, you can expect very long hours, although your schedule will vary somewhat from one rotation to the next.

Pass the Licensure Examination

All aspiring doctors are required to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE). This is three exams in one, and you’ll begin taking the exams prior to this point in your career pathway. The Step 1 portion of the USMLE is typically taken at the end of the second year in medical school.

After successfully passing each portion of the USMLE and completing your orthopedic residency, you’ll be eligible for licensure as an orthopedic doctor.

Consider Earning Board Certification as an Orthopedic Specialist

Orthopedists can choose to pursue board certification through the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS) or the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery (ABOS). Board certification isn’t mandatory, but it’s a good idea to pursue because it indicates that you are committed to clinical excellence and the health and safety of your patients. Many patients prefer to work with orthopedists who are board certified, and many healthcare organizations prefer to hire them. Board certification further indicates your commitment to lifelong learning, and this is especially important in medicine, as the body of research continues to grow each year.

You can begin working toward a rewarding career in medicine when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. GCU is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-med degree. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining the medical science learning community at GCU.


Approved by the assistant dean for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Jan. 12, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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