With so many different medical specialties it's easy to feel confused by the number of people who come into your hospital room to check on you. Sometimes your doctor may show up along with a whole bunch of medical students. Other times you may not recognize the person leaning over your hospital bed.
Don't hesitate to ask questions if you ever find yourself looking at someone and thinking, "Well, she has a badge, but who is she?" It could be the person is a specialist and your regular doctor sent her (or him) to check on you. Or it may be that the person is the doctor on call who is covering for the doctor you usually see.
Here's a guide to some of the experts who care for patients in the hospital:
Attending physician. This is the name given to the doctor who has completed training and is in charge of your care. An attending physician might supervise a team of medical students, residents, and fellows — which means that he or she may bring other people on rounds to visit patients.
Hospitalist. Hospitalists are attending physicians who only care for patients who are in the hospital. These doctors don't have offices where they see patients. Sometimes pediatricians and family doctors have hospitalists care for their patients while they are in the hospital. A hospitalist will stay in contact with your regular doctor but will manage your treatment while you're in the hospital.
Doctor on call. Your doctor can't work all the time. The doctor on call is a physician who covers weekends, evenings, and other shifts when your doctor can't be there. Doctors on call are there to answer questions and cover emergencies.
Fellow. A fellow has completed medical school and residency training, and is getting additional training in a particular specialty, such as heart surgery or kidney problems.
Resident. A resident is a doctor who has graduated medical school and is now training in a specific field. Doctors spend from 3 to 7 years in residency training before receiving board certification in their specialty. Residents can care for patients in a teaching hospital, but they are supervised by attending physicians who must approve their decisions.
Medical student. Medical students (who are training to be doctors) usually spend the first 2 years of medical school in the classroom and the last 2 years seeing patients in a hospital setting.
Physician assistant (PA). A physician assistant works under the supervision of a doctor. He or she examines patients, diagnoses and treats simple illnesses, orders tests, looks at test results, provides health care counseling, assists in surgery, and writes prescriptions. Most PAs have a college degree and have completed a special 2- to 3-year training program.
Here are some of the specialists you might meet in the hospital:
Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist administers medicine during surgery to help you relax and fall asleep. The anesthesiologist is present during an operation to watch over you and make sure you have no pain.
Endocrinologist. An endocrinologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases and conditions caused by hormone problems, such as diabetes and growth problems.
Cardiologist. A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart or blood vessel problems.
Gastroenterologist. This type of doctor specializes in problems with digestion and diseases of the esophagus, stomach, liver, gallbladder, and intestines.
Hematologist. A hematologist is a doctor who specializes in blood disorders.
Nephrologist. A nephrologist is a doctor who diagnoses and treats kidney problems.
Neurologist. This type of doctor specializes in brain and nervous system disorders.
Oncologist. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer.
Otolaryngologist. This doctor specializes in treating ear, nose, throat, head, and neck problems.
Pulmonologist. A pulmonologist is a doctor who concentrates on lung problems, such as asthma or cystic fibrosis.
Rheumatologist. A rheumatologist is a doctor who treats problems involving the joints, muscles, and bones, as well as auto-immune diseases. A rheumatologist treats conditions such as arthritis and lupus.
Surgeon. A surgeon is a doctor who can operate on patients if it is needed. A general surgeon does lots of different types of procedures, such as taking out an appendix or fixing a hernia. There are also many specialized types of surgeons, including neurosurgeons who operate on the brain and nervous system, urologists who operate on the urinary system, and orthopedists who operate on bones and joints.
Nurses provide much of the day-to-day care in hospitals. They closely monitor a patient's condition and perform vital jobs like giving medicine. Different nurses have different levels of certification and specialties.
Licensed practical nurse (LPN). LPNs provide basic care. They help patients with tasks like bathing, changing wound dressings, and taking vital signs. An LPN has at least 1 year of training in this kind of care and must be licensed to practice.
Registered nurse (RN). A registered nurse gives medication, performs small procedures such as drawing blood, and closely follows a person's condition. RNs have graduated from a nursing program and have a state license.
Advanced practice nurses (APN). An advanced practice nurse is an RN who has taken additional training beyond nursing school. At minimum, APNs have a college degree and a master's degree in nursing. Different kinds of APNs include:
- Nurse practitioner (NP). A nurse practitioner has additional training in a particular area, such as family practice or pediatrics. NPs often take a person's medical history, do the initial physical exam, perform some tests and procedures, write prescriptions, and treat minor illnesses and injuries. NPs have a master's degree and board certification in their specialty. They are licensed by the state in which they work.
- Clinical nurse specialist (CNS). A clinical nurse specialist provides a wide range of care in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, private offices, and community health centers. A CNS has been licensed in nursing, has a master's degree, and often works in administration, education, or research.
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). CRNAs specialize in giving and monitoring anesthesia. They prepare patients before procedures, administer anesthesia, and oversee recovery from anesthesia. CRNAs receive 2 to 3 years of additional training in this area.
Other Medical Staff
In addition to getting care from doctors and nurses during a hospital stay, you may also see specialists with training in different fields.
Child life specialist. Child life specialists offer comfort and the chance to talk about feelings. They're great resources for helping you manage any emotions, like stress and anxiety, while you're in the hospital. A child life specialist can help you deal with everything from getting blood drawn to missing school. They also help patients cope with a diagnosis of a serious illness. Child life specialists may also have training in social work.
Health educator. This specialist works as part of a medical team, teaching patients about a particular health condition and how to manage it. Health educators are trained and certified. They often specialize in a particular field, such as diabetes or asthma.
Nutritionist. A nutritionist (also called a dietitian) plans meals for patients based on their medical condition and needs. A nutritionist might also provide dietary guidance for kids to help them after they leave the hospital.
Occupational therapist. An occupational therapist works with people to improve coordination and motor skills. These can be skills needed to play sports, function in school, or perform routine activities, like hand-eye coordination. People in occupational therapy may be coping with conditions such as birth defects, autism, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, developmental delays, burns, amputations, or severe injuries.
Pharmacist. A pharmacist provides medications for patients, checks for any interactions between drugs, and works with the rest of the medical team to choose appropriate treatments. In hospitals, patients don't usually have contact with the pharmacists like you would if you were going to the drugstore.
Physical therapist. A physical therapist uses exercises, stretches, and other techniques to improve mobility, decrease pain, and reduce any disability related to illness or injury. People may need physical therapy as a result of developmental delays, injuries, long hospitalizations, or after surgery.
Respiratory therapist. A respiratory therapist evaluates, treats, and cares for people with breathing problems and heart problems that also affect the lungs.
Social worker. A social worker at a hospital focuses on improving the emotional well-being of kids and their families, and helps coordinate health care. Social workers also help with any improvements a child needs at school or at home.
Speech-language therapist. A speech-language therapist can work with patients who have problems speaking or swallowing, such as kids with developmental delays, hearing problems, neurological issues, or birth defects like cleft palates.
Volunteer. Volunteers of all ages, from high school students to retirees, donate their time to help patients in hospitals. The tasks volunteers do vary from hospital to hospital, but might include bringing games and books to patients or taking them for a walk around the hospital.
Pet therapy volunteer. Some hospitals use pet therapy, also called animal-assisted therapy. Research shows that pet therapy can help patients cope both emotionally and physically. In pet therapy volunteers and pets who have completed training programs are brought to the patient's bedside. The volunteer will always ask before bringing the pet near you. They will only approach if you feel comfortable around the pet and want it to be there.
The hospital can seem like a busy place. But if you're not sure who a doctor is or what role a person plays in your care, don't hesitate to ask a nurse or someone else you know.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: June 2008