MCAT

What a Doctor Does: Roles and Responsibilities

doctors standing proudly to illustrate what a doctor does

What Is a Doctor?

In medicine, a doctor (also known as a physician) is a specially trained and licensed medical professional who provides health care to patients. There are several kinds of doctors, each of whom has a different primary care responsibility. For example, if a patient is an adult, they go to a primary care physician. If the patient is a child, he or she would see a pediatrician. Let’s explore the role and responsibilities of a doctor.

The Job of a Doctor

Doctors see patients in a hospital, clinical, or office setting; this is also known as a consultation. During this visit, a doctor asks you specific questions about your symptoms or what you’re feeling. Some questions could include:

  • “What’s going on?
  • “What are you feeling?”
  • “How long have you been feeling this way?”
  • “Where is the pain?”
  • “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you describe your pain?”

These are just a few examples of probing questions a doctor would ask to determine your condition. In addition to this line of questioning, a doctor would examine your vital signs. Vital signs are a group of the four to six most critical medical signs that indicate the status of the body’s essential functions. A doctor checks your vital signs to help assess your general physical health. Vital signs also give clues to possible diseases and show progress toward recovery.

Collaboration With Nurses

It is often the nurse working under the doctor’s supervision who would check your vital signs, which include:

  1. Body temperature
  2. Blood pressure
  3. Pulse (heart rate)
  4. Breathing rate (respiratory rate)
  5. Measuring your weight
  6. Measuring your height

Depending on your symptoms or vital signs, a doctor may then perform a physical test on you. This test could include using a stethoscope to examine your breathing and heart rate further, performing a visual examination of your eyes, ears, other parts of your body, etc.

Making a Prognosis 

Sometimes, after the doctor has gotten your answers to their questions about your symptoms, seen the results of your vital signs examination, and performed a physical test (if necessary), he may have a good enough understanding of what’s wrong with you. This information may be sufficient to make an “educated guess” of your condition and treatment outcome. This educated guess is known as a prognosis.

Making a Diagnosis

Most well-trained doctors won’t stop at a prognosis, of course, because you could have a more severe condition. In that case, a simple examination of your vital signs won’t reveal enough. This is where a laboratory (lab) test comes in. Depending on your vital signs or physical test results, a doctor may order a lab test. A lab test is a procedure where a healthcare provider takes a sample of your blood, urine, other bodily fluid, or body tissue to obtain information about your health.

The nurse would instruct you to urinate in a bottle she provides to get a urine sample. Using this sample, they run some specific tests to identify your disorder. The doctor may also ask that the nurse draw blood from you to run further tests. These additional tests are done to get a more accurate understanding of your disease or illness. A lab test enables the doctor to reach a diagnosis, which identifies the nature of a disease or other problem by examining the symptoms.

After the doctor has reviewed your lab results, he will have an accurate interpretation of what those results mean. At this point, a highly trained doctor would thoroughly explain to you what illness or disease afflicting you. More importantly, he would be able to propose a treatment plan to treat or cure your condition.

Issuing a Treatment Plan

Once the doctor has diagnosed your condition, he will then propose a treatment plan. Generally, if your disease is severe or potentially life-risking, he would probably admit you to his clinic or hospital. Otherwise, he may simply prescribe medication to begin your treatment plan, which you would be responsible for taking according to his prescription. A prescription is simply an instruction written by a medical practitioner that authorizes a patient to be provided a medicine or treatment. Doctors often issue prescriptions to a local pharmacy that you would have convenient access to (think CVS or Walgreens).

As part of a treatment plan, most doctors will advise that you follow up with them within a specified period. This follow-up is so that they can evaluate your progress and monitor your treatment. The follow-up allows the doctor to modify or maintain the treatment plan based on whether your condition is improving. However, sometimes, the treatment is pretty straightforward, and there is no need for you to return to see the doctor. In this scenario, he would simply instruct you to take the prescribed medicine at home, treating your illness over a specified or estimated period.

Making Referrals for Advanced Treatment

In some cases, the primary care physician who first sees you may not have the specialization necessary to treat you. This is where referrals are handy. In this scenario, the doctor would refer you to a specialist–a doctor who has spent additional training after residency to become an expert in a specific field. For example, if the doctor diagnoses you with a heart condition, he may refer you to a cardiologist (heart doctor) or involve the cardiologist in your treatment plan. If your condition affects your internal organs (your intestines, for example), the doctor would likely refer you to a gastroenterologist (a doctor who deals with disorders of the stomach and intestines). 

The Versatility of Doctors 

In just about every society, doctors are well respected and work in various settings beyond an office or a hospital. For example, some doctors operate in emergency rooms, laboratories, and specialty clinics. Depending on the clinical setting and required specialty, primary care responsibilities could vary significantly from one type of doctor to another. Nevertheless, all doctors are in the business of providing health care, which involves treating or curing injuries, diseases, and illnesses, regardless of the severity.


If you’re currently an undergraduate student who intends to go on to medical school and become a physician, check out our comprehensive MCAT online learning tool to help you achieve your dream MCAT score.