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What is it like to be an Emergency Physician?

By: Urmika Balaji, Contributing Writer

Edited by: Fauzia Haque, Editor; Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief


Emergency Medical (ER) Physicians are physicians involved in assessing a patient’s condition and making immediate decisions to care for a patient in order to prevent death or worsening of the condition (AMA). Anyone who is in critical condition could come into the emergency room, so these physicians need to be prepared to deal with patients of all ages, all illnesses, and all stages of illness. This makes ER Physicians different from more specialized doctors, such as cardiologists or neurologists, who typically only deal with illnesses related to their specialization. The life of emergency doctors is stressful and they often work nights and weekends. However, their schedules often come with more flexibility than most other doctors, because they are not as likely to be called in. If you are interested in a career involving a fast-paced, unpredictable environment, read this article to learn more about the education, salary expectations, and daily life you can expect as an aspiring emergency physician.


An ER Physician will typically undergo the 4-year pre-medicine pathway in their undergraduate years, which consists of courses in biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, anatomy, physiology, and healthcare skills. The pre-medicine pathway does not require one to major in biology, but it does require one to take the courses required to get into medical school, in addition to the classes you take for your major. During this time, pre-med students also prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), a 7.5-hour standardized exam, which partially determines a student’s eligibility into medical school. After a student is accepted into a medical school, they undergo four years of studying basic science and participating in clinical rotations, and hands-on clinical experiences in healthcare settings. Typically, the first two years involve studying the core subjects: anatomy, biochemistry, ethics, pharmacology, physiology, and psychology. The last two years are predominantly participating in clinical rotations as members of a medical team supervised by a licensed physician, which are based on a curriculum that focuses on one physiological system at a time (AUCMED). However, many medical schools incorporate clinical rotations throughout all four years, and follow an individual case-based approach to learning subjects. After completing medical school, the aspiring ER physician must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), a standardized test taken in “steps” that assesses one’s ability to apply their knowledge and patient-centered skills in demonstrating effective care ( After passing the USMLE, the aspiring emergency physician must apply for residency in emergency medicine. As it is highly competitive, residency placement requires high grades and strong recommendation letters from medical school professors. Residency typically takes about three to four years, and then, the physician must take a written and oral exam to be board-certified and begin their practice (Hospital Careers).


The average salary range for an ER Physician is between $254,160 and $349,267. The profession is notably dominated by men, with 73.4% of active physicians being men and 26.6% being women (AAMC). Men also made 19% more than women in 2020 financially. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many ER physicians saw a decrease in their income due to a reduction in hours and no raises (Weatherby Healthcare).

Daily Life of an ER Physician:

The daily life of an ER physician is quite unpredictable, as they never know what kinds of patients are coming in. Sometimes, things can be as minor as a cut or a fever, but other times, it could be severe to the level of heart attacks or severe symptoms. The emergency room is a highly stressful environment, and the lead physician has the responsibility to decide which patients they give priority to. According to Dr. Troy Madsen, an emergency physician at University of Utah Health Care, the decision for care only takes a split second and can even involve casting other patients, who may present less life-threatening symptoms, aside for the time being: “If I look at someone's vital signs and their blood pressure is 70/40, I'm in that room immediately and the person with the facial laceration can probably wait” (University of Utah Health Care). It is an immediate decision a physician has to make, while going from room to room to see other patients. The main goal of an ER physician is to get a patient to a stable state as quickly as possible, so that they can be sent to a specialist for further treatment. While ER physicians may not be performing major nuanced surgeries, they need to immediately know how to help a patient while under severe amounts of stress. In addition to their own stress, ER physicians need to be able to deal with multiple stressed families. There are very rarely any breaks in between shifts, which means that ER physicians are working non-stop for 6 to 12 hours, whether day or night. However, ER Physicians do get days off, as they typically only work 3-4 shifts a week and are paged less frequently than other physicians (Med School Insiders).


A career in emergency medicine can be mentally and physically taxing, and it may be difficult to imagine satisfaction over a prolonged period. However, 65.2% of ER physicians derive satisfaction in their career, and it is highly related to the diversity of their work, the gratification of saving people’s lives, and the flexibility of their shifts (Duva Sawko). ER Physicians are extremely dedicated to their professions, and they make a huge difference in healthcare from being front-line workers. Overall, it is a great career for people who can thrive in high pressure environments, maintain a strong mind, and want to make an impact in their community.


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