Resident vs. Attending Physician: What's the Difference? (2022)

A resident is someone who has graduated from medical school and is completing a post-graduate training program. An attending physician is a board-certified physician who has completed their residency training. Residents are supervised by attending physicians.

When you receive care from a resident, you are also receiving care from their attending physician. This means you’ll benefit from the experience and knowledge of both providers.

This article discusses what makes an attending and a resident. It also offers a breakdown of the other people that comprise a hospital care team who are either board-certified physicians or those on track to becoming one.

Resident vs. Attending Physician: What's the Difference? (1)

Doctors and Levels of Seniority

To better understand what a resident and an attending physician are, it’s helpful to know more about all of levels of physicians and how they compare.

In the United States, the hierarchy of doctors you may encounter in a hospital is as follows:

  1. Attending physician: A doctor who has finished post-graduate training
  2. Fellow: A doctor who pursues optional additional training before becoming an attending
  3. Resident: A doctor who has finished their first year of post-graduate training
  4. Intern: Medical school graduates who are first-year residents

In order to become an intern, one must go to medical school and then embark on further training at a teaching hospital.

Attending Physicians

An attending physician is a medical doctor who has completed all residency training. They are board-certified or eligible to practice independently in a particular specialty.

An attending physician typically supervises fellows,residents,and medical students and may also be a professor at an affiliated medical school. Attending physicians have final responsibility for all patient care—even if a subordinate provides the care. (They may or may not have legal liability, depending on circumstances.)

An attending physician is considered an expert in their field of medicine or surgery. Attendings are also referred to as staff physicians, supervising physicians, or simply “attendings.”

Depending on the field of medicine, the route from medical student to attending can take seven years or more. Some specialties can take 14 years or more of post-undergraduate studies and training before credentials are fully obtained.

Attending

  • Provide direct care to patients without supervision

  • No limits on services they are able to deliver

  • Hold all responsibility for care given by them or subordinates

Resident

(Video) What’s the Difference Between a Medical Student, Resident & Attending Physician? A Doctor Explains

  • Can provide direct care to patients with supervision and guidance of an attending

  • Allowed to do more as they gain experience

  • Do not hold ultimate responsibility for care provided

Fellows

A fellow is someone who has completed their residency and elects to pursue further training. A fellowship is optional but is required to practice certain subspecialties.

An example is a general surgeon who wants to pursue a career in pediatric brain (neuro) surgery or heart/lung (cardiothoracic) surgery.

There are fellowships in many fields of medicine, including:

  • Cardiology (cardiovascular system)
  • Neurology (brain and nervous system)
  • Obstetrics/gynecology (female reproductive health)
  • Ophthalmology (eyes)
  • Orthopedics (muscles/bones/joints)

Interns and Residents

Medical school graduates then enter a residency program in a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office.

The goal of residency—also referred to as a graduate medical education (GME) program—is to continue training in a specialized field of medicine. A medical residency can last anywhere from two to three years for a family doctor to seven or more years for a surgeon.

First-year residents are referred to as interns. After that, they are known as resident doctors, resident physicians, or simply “residents.”

Residents provide direct care under the supervision of an attending physician or senior resident.

Residency Specializations

Residents can choose different specialties to train in after graduation. Some potential specialties include:

  • Emergency medicine
  • General surgery
  • Family practice
  • Pediatrics
  • Anesthesiology
  • Diagnostic radiology

Chief Residents

Chief residents are selected to lead a group of residents. They are residents who are elevated to a level that puts them senior to the rest of the residents and junior to the program’s management.

The duties of chief residents may vary, but can include patient care; mentoring, training, and advocating for team members; and carrying out some administrative duties.

Chief residents are chosen by hospital leadership during their residency program.

Medical Students

Medical students are those who have obtained a bachelor’s degree and have been accepted to medical school after meeting certain requirements, including passing the Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT).

The first two years of their four-year program is devoted to classroom studies. During the latter two years, time is largely spent in a hospital- or clinic-based setting.

Upon completion of medical school, medical students graduate with either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor ofosteopathic medicine(DO) degree.

It is only at this point that they are referred to as physicians, even though their training is not yet complete.

20 of the Most Common Physician Specialties

(Video) Intern Vs. Resident Vs. Fellow [What's The Difference]

How Can You Tell Who’s a Resident vs. an Attending?

You can sometimes tell where a person fits in the hierarchy based on the length of their lab coats. Residents typically wear longer coats, while attending physicians will wear full-length coats.

The shortest white coats, on the other hand, are worn by medical students.

Even so, a lab coat is not an absolute indication of a person’s status as other health professionals also wear them, including nurse practitioners and phlebotomists (technicians who draw blood).

Today, many health professionals of all ranks also wear scrubs.

When in doubt, look at a staff member’s ID badge or just ask what their role is. It is your right to know who does what and which member of the hospital staff is ultimately in charge.

Summary

People training to be a medical doctor are given different titles as they progress through the ranks. They begin as medical students, then progress to interns, residents, and fellows. Once residency and fellowship trainings are complete, a person can become a board-certified attending physician.

From the time of enrollment in medical school to board certification, it can take anywhere from seven to 14 years (or more) to become an attending physician.

Frequently Asked Questions

6 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How to become a physician or surgeon.

  2. Mowery YM.A primer on medical education in the United States through the lens of a current resident physician. Ann Transl Med. 2015;3(18):270. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2305-5839.2015.10.19

  3. Weggemans MM, van Dijk B, van Dooijeweert B, Veenendaal AG, ten Cate O.The postgraduate medical education pathway: an international comparison. GMS J Med Educ. 2017;34(5):Doc63. doi:10.3205/zma001140

  4. Teo WZW, Brenner LH, Bal BS. Medicolegal sidebar: resident physician liability. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2017;475(8):1963-1965. doi:10.1007/s11999-017-5402-x

  5. American Medical Association. 6 things medical students should know about physician compensation.

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physicians and surgeons.

    (Video) Good vs bad resident (attending physician perspective)

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.

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FAQs

Is an attending physician a resident? ›

Attending physician: A doctor who has finished post-graduate training. Fellow: A doctor who pursues optional additional training before becoming an attending. Resident: A doctor who has finished their first year of post-graduate training. Intern: Medical school graduates who are first-year residents2.

How long are you a resident before an attending? ›

Primary duties: An attending physician is a fully trained physician with three or more years of residency training.

What is the difference between a resident doctor and a doctor? ›

Residents are doctors in training. They have graduated from medical school, been awarded an M.D. degree, and now are training to be a particular type of doctor — such as a pediatrician or pediatric specialist, or a type of surgeon. In their first year of such training, residents are sometimes called interns.

Why do they call doctors attendings? ›

A Reddit contributor had a very good explanation saying, “In the past, senior physicians would attend rounds on occasion, though usually they would be ran by chief residents. The senior physician attending rounds became known as attendings.”

Is an attending higher than a resident? ›

Residents practice medicine under the supervision of fully credentialed Attending physicians. They can practice both in a hospital or in a clinic.

How long is a doctor a resident? ›

But generally speaking, a doctor's medical residency lasts three to seven years. For most specialties, this includes an intern year followed by a number of years of dedicated training.

What comes after residency for a doctor? ›

After residency, a physician may pursue further training and specialization in their field through a fellowship. Each specialty has different fellowships that typically last one to two years.

Do you get paid during residency? ›

Resident salaries are determined by an institution and correlate with training year rather than specialty. So, in a given training institution, all residents who are in their third year of training typically get the same salary, and all in their sixth year are paid the same as well.

What are the ranks of doctors? ›

The Top Heads of a Hospital Medical Hierarchy
  • Medical Director. The directors of a hospital are industry leaders in charge of overseeing every single physician on the staff. ...
  • Head of Department. ...
  • Attending Physician. ...
  • Fellow. ...
  • Chief Resident. ...
  • Senior Resident. ...
  • Junior Resident. ...
  • Intern.

Who is above an attending physician? ›

A chief physician generally is in charge of medical matters and often is the superior of other physicians (including consultants and attending physicians), but may also be in charge of other professional groups and areas of responsibility.

At what age do you become a resident doctor? ›

After graduating from high school at 18, you'll spend 4 years in college and yet another 4 years in med school. At around 26 years old, you'll start taking up residency that averages 4 years, and at least a year of fellowship training.

Do residents stay at the same hospital? ›

You match into a residency at a specific hospital or university or other med center. Hospitals may be private, community, large nonprofit or academic. In large cities/urban areas, residents may end up rotating through multiple hospitals across town.

Is a surgeon higher than a doctor? ›

All surgeons must first qualify as doctors, so they will have a basic medical degree which includes the principles of medicine and surgery. The title of this degree varies according to the university attended.

DO you have to DO residency after medical school? ›

A state medical license is the most valuable physician credential, and you can't earn it without at least one year of residency. As Academic Medicine notes, a doctor without a medical license can't examine a patient even with supervision, which is less than they could do as a medical student.

Who is considered the attending physician? ›

A medical doctor who is responsible for the overall care of a patient in a hospital or clinic setting. An attending physician may also supervise and teach medical students, interns, and residents involved in the patient's care.

Do all residents become attendings? ›

Once a resident finishes their residency, they are considered an attending physician. The attending physician is in charge of the whole medical team- including the residents, intern, and medical student.

How long does it take to become an attending physician? ›

Doctors must complete a four-year undergraduate program, along with four years in medical school and three to seven years in a residency program to learn the specialty they chose to pursue. In other words, it takes between 10 to 14 years to become a fully licensed doctor.

What is the difference between a hospitalist and an attending? ›

Hospitalists are internal med doctors. For other patients with different diagnoses they will be under an attending for pulmonary, ortho, etc. THat attending doc will have interns and residents and you go through the chain of command for questions.

Videos

1. Q & A - Roles of Medical Resident vs Fellow
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2. Medical School vs Residency Comparison
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3. Attending Physician vs. Office Visits as a Resident at Parkwood Healthcare
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4. An Attending vs a Resident
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5. Being An Attending Physician - What No One Tells You in Residency and Medical School
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6. WHAT IS A MEDICAL RESIDENT?
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