How to Become an ER Doctor: Career and Education Roadmap

Learn how to become an emergency room (ER) doctor. Research the education and career requirements, licensure, and experience required for starting a career as an ER doctor.

Do I Want to Be an ER Doctor?

An ER (emergency room) doctor treats and cares for patients admitted to an emergency room. Once patients arrive, an ER doctor is responsible for a number of duties such as assessing their conditions and beginning treatment, ordering tests or X-rays, or providing medication. ER doctors stabilize a trauma patient or treat injuries like lacerations, broken bones, and sprains. If a specialist is necessary, an ER doctor will call them or admit the patient for further care.

ER doctors work very long, irregular hours, most of which are on their feet. It is a high-stress position that requires complex multi-tasking, but the reward of saving someone's life is unparalleled. Many ER doctors make very good money. There is some risk for illness and/or injury while working in an emergency room.

Job Requirements

Like other medical doctors, ER doctors must graduate from an accredited medical school and earn a medical license. After graduating from medical school and getting a license, aspiring ER doctors will need to participate in an ER residency program. The table below includes the requirements to become an ER doctor.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Medical degree*
Licensing Medical doctors must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE)**
Experience Experience in an ER residency program is required**
Key Skills ER doctors must be able to work under pressure and have strong communication skills**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ** (August 2012).

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

While there is no specific major for prospective medical doctors to pursue, it's important that they complete science-related courses in a bachelor's degree program. Several schools also offer a pre-medical track that can be pursued with the assistance of a pre-professional adviser, who direct students in which courses they should take. Students will have to take related courses like cellular biology, human physiology and organic chemistry, but will also have to take courses in English, mathematics and physics.

Success Tip

  • Think about volunteering or working in a medical facility. Enrollment into medical school is very competitive and having experience in a hospital or clinic can be beneficial. While you may be able to find employment opportunities, volunteering is also an option and will make your application more appealing.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is an examination that assesses an applicant's readiness for medical school. Medical schools use the scores from this exam to determine whether an applicant has the critical thinking, problem-solving and writing skills necessary to succeed at that level. The exam includes topics in physical sciences, biological sciences, verbal reasoning and writing.

Step 3: Earn a Doctor of Medicine Degree

The first two years of medical school focus on coursework and laboratory experiences. This is an opportunity for students to learn about topics like microbiology, anatomy, pharmacology, medical ethics, physiology and immunology. The final two years of the program offer students a chance to participate in clinical rotations involving things like emergency medicine, cardiology, gynecology, psychology, orthopedics and more. Medical students will begin working with patients, taking medical histories and completing basic procedures under the supervision of experienced physicians.

Success Tip

  • Complete an emergency department internship. Before you begin your fourth year of medical school, you can participate in an internship with an emergency department. Not only will this give you experience, but will help you with your residency application.

Step 4: Earn a License to Practice Medicine

In order to practice medicine, medical doctors need to obtain a license from the state in which they plan to practice. In order to earn licensure, doctors must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This is a 3-part exam that tests applicants on their ability to care for patients and work in a medical and emergency setting.

Step 5: Complete a Residency Program

An emergency medicine residency lasts three years. The residency usually consists of conferences, lab work and clinical simulations. Conference topics usually cover specific areas of emergency medicine like cardiovascular or pulmonary treatment, while labs train doctors in specific skills like airway management, repairing of wounds or orthopedics. In clinical simulations, students work on manikins and are put into simulated situations that they might face on a day-to-day basis in a healthcare setting. Emergency medicine residency can also include peer review, seminars and, eventually, supervised clinical training in a real world setting.

Success Tip

  • Consider a specialization through a fellowship program. As an ER doctor, you can specialize in the field by participating in a fellowship program. A fellowship will provide you with training in a subspecialty, such as pediatric emergency medicine, pain management, disaster medicine or medical toxicology.

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