Overview and Definition

General surgery is a medical discipline that involves performing various types of surgical procedures to treat a broad range of health problems and diseases.

In general surgery, the surgeon is expected to perform both pre- and post-operative care and management other than the surgery itself. General surgeons can diagnose several types of diseases, especially those that are related to the abdomen and the organs connected to it. These include bile ducts, liver, pancreas, spleen, appendix, small and large intestine, rectum, and the stomach. The surgeon may also operate the thoracic region, glands in the thyroids, and hernias. To a certain extent, general surgeons are also responsible for procedures performed on the skin and the breast.

General surgeons are also expected to treat burn patients. Hence, aside from hospitals, they can also be found in trauma centers and emergency departments.

With so many sub-specialties under surgery, people do often get confused with general surgery and cranial, cardiovascular, etc. The main difference is the kind of knowledge that general surgeons gain during training. While general surgeons learn to treat several types of diseases, they receive core knowledge. Anything that requires a more comprehensive or specific knowledge should be passed on to a specific surgeon or specialist. For example, a general surgeon can operate the vascular regions except for the heart, which should be managed by a cardiovascular surgeon.

General surgeons go through rigorous training and education before they are allowed to practice. They spend at least two years to complete prerequisite courses before they proceed to medical school, which usually take four years. Then, they complete a five-year residency program in any accredited hospital to specialize in surgery. Depending on the program, the general surgeon should be able to perform at least a thousand surgeries. After that, they can qualify for a board certification. They also need to obtain a medical license from the state where they wish to practice. In addition, they are required to go through several continuing education programs. If the surgeons wish to specialize in a surgical field, they may spend at least three years for further training.

During the course of training, general surgeons are expected to learn:

  • Technical proficiency
  • Clinical knowledge
  • Knowledge in various surgical procedures including minimally invasive surgeries
  • Clinical evaluation
  • Fluid management
  • Stabilization of patients, especially those who are under critical care
  • Knowledge in pediatric and geriatric care
  • Referrals

When to see a General Surgeon

Patients may encounter general surgeons if:

  • They have been referred by their doctor – Doctors work closely with general surgeons if the treatment plan requires a more invasive intervention. It could be because the medications didn't work or won't work unless a blockage, for example, has been removed by the general surgeon.

  • Surgical procedures needed are within the scope of the general surgeons – These include resections of the abdomen or the colon, organ transplantation, etc.

  • Patients need to undergo weight loss surgery – Since weight loss surgeries such as lap band often deal with the abdomen and its contents, they are carried out by general surgeons.

  • The patients require emergency care – Some injuries can be so severe the patients would require surgery ASAP. The broad knowledge and skills of general surgeons including resuscitating the patient in case of shock will come in handy. These emergencies may include amputated limb or finger, skin burns, internal bleeding, and blockage in the airways.

  • The patients need both pre- and post-surgical care – The general surgeon is expected to have knowledge in the evaluation and diagnosis such as interpreting existing medical records and radiologic results, surgical treatment, and administration of drugs such as antibiotics and fluids. Moreover, the surgeon has to show skills in nutrition, management of pain especially after operation, infection control, and wound healing.

  • Minimally invasive surgeries are recommended - Minimally invasive surgeries are considered breakthroughs since they require only small incisions and promote quicker and more precise surgical operation. Further, the risks of complication are low while recovery is fast.


  • Department of Surgery: Research – Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Yale School of Medicine
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