Being a hospital doctor is a rewarding but demanding role that will suit you if you enjoy caring for others, have good stamina and can work under pressure

As a hospital doctor, you'll examine, diagnose and treat patients who've been referred to the hospital by GPs and other health professionals. You will need to apply your medical knowledge and skills to the diagnosis, prevention and management of disease.

Work is predominantly found in the public sector (NHS) but you can also work in private hospitals. You'll spend a lot of time working on wards and in outpatient clinics.

As well as treating patients, you'll refer them to a range of other healthcare professionals including nurses, radiographers, pharmacists and physiotherapists.

You can choose to work within a number of specialties. Some of the more common areas include:

  • anaesthetics
  • emergency medicine
  • general medicine
  • general surgery
  • obstetrics and gynaecology
  • paediatrics
  • psychiatry
  • trauma and orthopaedics.

Responsibilities

Specific tasks depend on your specialty - for instance, what surgeons carry out on a daily basis is completely different to an accident and emergency (A&E) doctor's workload.

Regardless of your speciality, as a hospital doctor you'll need to:

  • monitor and provide general care to patients on hospital wards and in outpatient clinics
  • admit patients requiring special care, followed by investigations and treatment
  • examine and talk to patients to diagnose their medical conditions
  • carry out specific procedures, e.g. performing operations and specialist investigations
  • make notes and prepare paperwork, both as a legal record of treatment and for the benefit of other healthcare professionals
  • work with other doctors as part of a team, either in the same department or within other specialties
  • liaise with other medical and non-medical staff in the hospital to ensure quality treatment
  • promote health education
  • undertake managerial responsibilities such as planning the workload and staffing of the department, especially at more senior levels
  • teach and supervise junior doctors and medical students
  • carry out auditing and research.

Salary

  • Junior doctors in Foundation Year 1 (F1) earn a basic starting salary of £26,614. In Foundation Year 2 (F2) this rises to £30,805.
  • A doctor in specialist training starts on a basic salary of £36,461 and can progress up to £46,208. Once training is finished, speciality doctors can earn from £37,923 to £70,718.
  • Consultants earn a basic salary of £76,761 to £103,490 depending on length of service.

As a doctor in training, you'll receive extra pay if you work over 40 hours a week. There's a 37% enhancement for working nights and allowances for weekend and on-call work. Pay in private practice is set on different scales.

Income data from Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

As a hospital doctor you should expect to work very long and unsocial hours, including weekends and nights (usually on a rota basis), although working hours vary according to specialty. Many roles will involve being on-call for certain periods.

Once qualified and experienced, career breaks are usually possible. However, if the break is longer than two years you may need to carry out some retraining on your return.

What to expect

  • Working conditions vary according to specialty. Settings include wards, consulting rooms, operating theatres, laboratories and special units such as A&E.
  • A variety of private practice opportunities exist, depending on your experience and specialist knowledge. These positions can provide more flexibility or management of your own hours.
  • Opportunities exist in most large towns and cities throughout the country.
  • Working as a locum can provide the opportunity to practise in various locations throughout the UK. It's also possible to travel and work abroad. It may be necessary to move to a different part of the country to get the job you really want.
  • The work may be demanding, both mentally and physically, with long, unsocial hours. You will be taking responsibility for patients' health and wellbeing.
  • Balancing work with further study for about five years after graduation is usually needed in order to gain specialist qualifications. Training for some roles may be longer than this.
  • Travel is occasionally required as part of the working day. If you're on an on-call rota system, you may frequently be absent from home overnight.

Qualifications

To become a hospital doctor, you must complete:

  • a degree in medicine, recognised by the General Medical Council (GMC)
  • a two-year foundation programme of general training
  • specialist training in a chosen area of medicine.

Medical degrees are available at undergraduate level (taking five years to complete) and graduate level, which typically takes four years. The British Medical Association has further information about applying to medical school as a graduate.

Entry into medicine is very competitive and your motivation and commitment are rigorously assessed. You may be required to complete the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT). The BMAT has two test dates, which fall in September and October.

Find out how to prepare for the UKCAT, or visit Cambridge Assessment Admissions Training - Preparing for BMAT.

Following your medical degree, you'll need to complete a two-year foundation programme. This includes placements in different specialties and consists of:

  • Foundation Year 1 (F1): builds upon the knowledge, skills and competences you developed in undergraduate training and allows you to take supervised responsibility of patient care. Once you've satisfactorily completed F1, you'll be recommended for full registration with GMC.
  • Foundation Year 2 (F2): you'll remain under supervision but will take on increasing responsibility and make management decisions. At the end of this year, you'll get the award of Foundation Achievement of Competence Document (FACD), which allows you to enter into specialty training. More information is available at The Foundation Programme.

Specialist training is a competency-based rotational programme, which focuses on your chosen medical area. Typical specialties include:

  • acute care (which divides into further specialties)
  • medicine
  • paediatrics
  • psychiatry
  • surgery.

The training programmes vary considerably according to the specialty. Details of the different programmes can be found at NHS Specialty Training.

Successful completion of this training leads to the award of the Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT), which allows entry to the specialist register held by the GMC.

For details of training in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales see:

Skills

You will need to show:

  • personal qualities such as commitment to caring for others, resourcefulness and stamina
  • a willingness to accept responsibility when making decisions on patients
  • the ability to prioritise a busy workload and work under pressure
  • motivation and perseverance
  • the ability to communicate well with people, demonstrating empathy and reflection
  • teamworking and leadership skills.

Work experience

You will be required to have related experience in a caring or health environment before applying for the degree course. This is to show that you have an understanding of what working in medicine is like and that you appreciate the emotional and physicals demands, as well as the skills required.

Relevant work experience can be carried out in hospitals and GP practices, hospices and care homes or any other environment that involves caring for people. Work shadowing or observing doctors can also be helpful to get an idea of what the work involves.

Volunteering opportunities can be found at:

Employers

The NHS employs the majority of hospital doctors but there's also an increasing number of doctors working in private hospitals.

It's possible, particularly at consultant grade, to combine private work with working for the NHS. These opportunities may increase as government policy attempts to address the costs of caring for an ageing population and expensive new treatments. It's predicted that an increasing proportion of NHS work will be contracted out to the private sector.

As a result of proposed changes to healthcare provision there may also be some merging of the traditional roles of hospital doctors and general practitioners (GPs).

There are limited opportunities within the armed forces, with some possibility of working overseas. There are also some opportunities to work within the prison service.

Voluntary and charitable organisations employ small numbers of doctors to work in developing countries. One of the best known is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) (Doctors Without Borders). These posts are often very poorly paid, but competitive and hugely rewarding.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies may hold jobs.

Individual trusts and hospitals advertise vacancies on their websites and sometimes in printed bulletins.

Professional development

GMC requires all doctors to keep their knowledge and skills up to date. You'll be expected to continue to learn throughout your career and the key way to do this is through continuing professional development (CPD).

CPD activities can include attending courses, conferences, meetings and events, as well as carrying research and peer review. The professional body relating to your specialist area will have information on the type of CPD you can carry out and how much you should complete each year. The GMC also has a guidance booklet for doctors on CPD and an app which you can use to log your activities. Find out more at GMC Professional Development.

You will also need to be familiar with and follow the GMC's Good medical practice, which gives advice on the standards expected of you as a doctor and learning materials to help you apply the guidance in practice.

If you want to follow an academic research career, you'll need to study for a PhD in an area of original research.

You can take additional postgraduate qualifications while working, including certificate, diploma and Masters courses in medical education. Search for postgraduate courses in healthcare.

Career prospects

Most hospital doctors aspire to become a consultant. As a consultant, you'll be responsible for your own work and for supervising the work and training of all doctors on your team.

You can apply for consultancy roles six months before you achieve your Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) at the end of your specialist training. You may need to wait longer than this though as extra experience and research is often needed for competitive posts.

Progression through all the different grades will involve study and CPD in the form of assessment and examinations. The number of jobs at all levels is determined by current and future service need.

As a consultant, opportunities at managerial level include clinical lead within a team, clinical director of a department and medical director within a trust.

There are also opportunities to move into academic medicine or research within your specialist area but further qualifications will be required.

Health service modernisation, and the increasing emphasis on patient choice and patient safety, means that there is an increase in accountability and paperwork in all promoted posts. Ethical issues, such as euthanasia and the threat of litigation, are key topics that you'll need to be aware of and keep up to date with as your career progresses.