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What is an Orthopedic Residency?

By Roon Obannon
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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An orthopedic residency is a hospital-based medical training program centered on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries of the musculoskeletal system. To become an orthopedic resident, a candidate must be a graduate of a four-year medical college and must have chosen the field of orthopedic medicine as their specialty. Residents enrolled in the program are doctors who are not yet fully licensed to practice medicine without supervision.

The path to become an orthopedic doctor can be long and challenging, with the typical residency program lasting three to five years beyond medical school. The duration varies among individual hospitals and according to the orthopedic sub-specialty. It is a very hands-on training experience under the guidance of attending physicians, combined with broad academic studies. Residents are categorized as house staff members and receive a salary, although it is somewhat minimal because they are still physicians-in-training.

All program residents train as orthopedic surgeons and learn to correctly position and repair bones using screws, plates and pins. There is an emphasis on such things as nutrition, assessment of fluid and electrolyte balance, preoperative pathology, surgical technique and wound healing. They perform disc and nerve repair, amputations, bone grafting, traction, arthroscopic surgery, kneecap removal, joint replacements and many other orthopedic procedures. The coordination of patient care is also one of the main focal points of an orthopedic residency.

Some considerations when one evaluates the differences between accredited orthopedic residency programs are the diversity of the patient population and the types of cases treated. Another element is the permitted level of direct student participation in trauma management. Additional aspects include the qualifications of attending staff members and their level of expertise as well as the percentage of graduates who successfully pass the board certification exam. Other points of comparison are the number of orthopedic specialties each hospital program offers, the ratio of attending physicians to house staff members and the professional status of the program's graduates.

Residents will encounter study-units in interpersonal communications, clinical judgment and professionalism. They will invest blocks of time learning to use high-tech surgical equipment and exploring treatment options. They’ll also study degenerative diseases and radiology imaging.

There are many divisions from which one can select orthopedic subspecialties, including pediatric orthopedics, traumatology, musculoskeletal oncology and rehabilitation. Some students might prefer adult joint reconstruction or specializing in the hand, elbow and upper extremity. Others might be more interested in the foot and ankle, the spine, sports medicine or microsurgery.

When all orthopedic residency program requirements have been fulfilled, a resident can apply to sit for the board certification exam. His or her knowledge, skill and qualifications will be evaluated first by an exhaustive written exam. If that is completed successfully, then an oral examination will conclude the process.

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