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JAMA Patient Page
September 3, 2003

Medical Specialties

JAMA. 2003;290(9):1268. doi:10.1001/jama.290.9.1135

Future physicians go to medical school after they complete college. Medical students learn about many different areas of medicine, including those designated as specialties. At the end of medical school, doctors choose the specialty in which they will have more education and eventually practice. Education in each specialty takes three to seven years of a residency after medical school. Some medical specialties have subspecialties that require even more education and training. Since medical knowledge is so complex and advanced, most doctors limit their practices to their area of specialization. The September 3, 2003, issue of JAMA, a theme issue on medical education, includes articles on medical specialties.

Primary care specialties

  • Family medicine (primary care of adults and children)

  • Internal medicine (primary care of adults)

  • Pediatrics (primary care of children)

Doctors who practice in the primary care specialties focus on general care of the patient. They often coordinate the specialized care that a patient may receive from different medical specialists. Primary care physicians usually provide continuing care for patients over a long time. They are also concerned with preventing diseases and medical problems.

Other specialties

  • Allergy and immunology (allergic diseases)

  • Anesthesiology (pain control and other care during surgery)

  • Cardiothoracic (heart and chest) surgery

  • Colon and rectal surgery

  • Dermatology (skin diseases)

  • Emergency medicine (emergency care)

  • General surgery

  • Medical genetics

  • Neurology (diseases of the nervous system)

  • Neurosurgery (surgery of brain and nervous system)

  • Nuclear medicine (use of nuclear materials in diagnosis and treatment)

  • Obstetrics and gynecology (female reproductive system including prenatal and birth care)

  • Ophthalmology (eye diseases)

  • Orthopedic surgery (bones and joints)

  • Otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat)

  • Pathology (diagnosis of tissues and body fluids)

  • Physical medicine (rehabilitation)

  • Plastic surgery (skin and body surface)

  • Preventive medicine (public health and disease prevention)

  • Psychiatry (mental disorders)

  • Radiology (diagnosis using images; radiation therapy)

  • Urology (kidneys and urinary system)


Examples of subspecialties of internal medicine and pediatrics include cardiology (heart disease), nephrology (kidney diseases), and rheumatology (arthritis and connective tissue diseases). Examples of surgical subspecialties include hand surgery and vascular (blood vessel) surgery.

Information on specialties can be obtained from the American Board of Medical Specialties, an organization that regulates the development of specialties in medicine. This organization upholds the standards that allow doctors to become board certified. When a doctor meets all the requirements of a medical specialty board (a required level of education, experience, and specialized testing of knowledge and skill), she or he is called a diplomate of that specialty board. The doctor is then allowed to state that she or he is board certified in that medical specialty. A doctor's board certification can be verified through the American Board of Medical Specialties.

For more information

Inform yourself

To find this and previous JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com. Many are available in English and Spanish.

Sources: American Board of Medical Specialties, American Medical Association, Council of Medical Specialty Societies

The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. Any other print or online reproduction is subject to AMA approval. To purchase bulk reprints, call 718/946-7424.