Plastic Surgeon Education Requirements and Career Information

Plastic surgeons are medical doctors who reconstruct and improve the physical appearances of patients by performing cosmetic or reconstructive surgery. Plastic surgeons must complete extensive graduate work, including medical school, residencies and possibly fellowships.

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Plastic Surgeon Educational Requirements

Most prospective plastic surgeons complete undergraduate degrees prior to attending medical school. Although bachelor's degrees in any major are acceptable, premedical students must complete certain prerequisite courses, including chemistry, biology and physics. The first two years of medical school, referred to as the preclinical years, teach students the fundamentals of body systems, diseases and patient care. The final two years are the clinical years and place students in healthcare facilities to perform clinical rotations. Surgery is a required rotation and some schools offer clerkships in plastic surgery.

After graduating from medical school, individuals typically have two options when selecting residency programs. Some schools offer combined general and plastic surgery programs that last around six years, while others offer 2- or 3-year plastic surgery residencies independently and require individuals to first complete at least three years in general surgery residencies. Residency programs incorporate training in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery while allowing residents greater independence than that of medical students.

Plastic surgeons who wish to work in subspecialties, such as hand or head and neck surgery, will then need to undergo fellowships. These programs typically last one year and provide more narrowly focused training with increased responsibility in treatment program management. Fellows also have opportunities to conduct research.

Licensing Requirements

All physicians, including plastic surgeons, must be licensed to practice. While state regulations vary, a universal requirement is successfully passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX), which test individuals on their knowledge of diseases and patient care. Plastic surgeons who seek optional board certification must pass an exam administered by the American Board of Plastic Surgery or the American Osteopathic Board of Surgery after completing their residencies.

Career Information

Plastic surgeons may perform either cosmetic or reconstructive surgery. Cosmetic plastic surgery involves procedures that serve only to change an individual's appearance. Such procedures may include tummy tucks, hair restoration and breast augmentation. Reconstructive plastic surgeons work with abnormal conditions caused by birth defects or accidents, such as a cleft palates and scars.

Similar to other surgeons, plastic surgeons consult with patients and family members to explain procedures prior to operating. Many surgeons work more than 40 hours a week and may be called in on short notice for emergencies. During surgical procedures, they work within teams with other medical professionals, including surgical assistants and nurses.

Job Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the continued expansion of the healthcare industry and a growing population were expected to cause an 18% increase in the employment of physicians and surgeons, including plastic surgeons, from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). In May 2013, the BLS reported that the annual average salary for physicians and surgeons overall was $191,880.

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