I need to create easy to read universal list of medical specialties. This goal seems impossible if taking into account subspecialties - in most countries they are pretty different. Since there are no worldwide agreements on how to group specialties, I decided to group it by the medicine branch it belongs to.

I need help clarifying what specialties and subspecialties exist, and how they are related.

As a basis I took a list of medical branches from wikipedia:

  Critical care medicine
  Emergency medicine
  First aid
  General practice/Family medicine
  Infectious disease
  Internal medicine
  Preventive medicine
  Sports medicine

Then I google a list of medical specialties and try to put it all together. This is the first link from google: https://www.sgu.edu/blog/medical/ultimate-list-of-medical-specialties/

Lets take a look on how do they group Surgery:

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They put Paediatric Surgery into Surgery. Fair enough.

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Lets see Pediatrics group:

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Almost all specialties constructed as two medical branches joined together:

Pediatric Cardiology, Pediatric Endocrinology. Are there any unique specialties in Pediatrics? Why we don't put it into Endocrinology, Cardiology groups? What brach of medicine has more weight when grouping specialties?

As I understand, if you are Cardiologist, you can perform Pediatric Cardiology procedures also, and it should be your subspecialty. So for Surgery they did right grouping, but for pediatrics, we should leave only those specialties that are unique for this branch of medicine only.

And the biggest issue. There are such branches as:

Internal medicine

General practice/Family medicine

Lets take a look at Internal Medicine

enter image description here

Almost all specialties just repeat existing medicine branches.

Aren't Internal Medicine doctors are more generic? Seems like oncology requires Oncologist, which can have also different areas of expertise, but not Internal Medicine doctor.

How can I better conceptualize how specialties and subspecialties are divided up?

  • What is your question?
    – Carey Gregory
    Jul 28, 2019 at 5:42
  • 2
    @CareyGregory He's got quite a few things mixed up, so it's hard to even formulate a question. I think I understand where he's got it wrong, so I altered the Q to actually ask a Q and then answered it.
    – DoctorWhom
    Jul 28, 2019 at 5:59

2 Answers 2


The best way to answer this would depend on your reason for making the list, which I do not know. Also, I am not sure how to create an international list, as specialties within a country are defined by the training path and board exams, which do differ somewhat between countries. But you do have some misunderstandings on some of the fundamentals of this, and I can at least advise you on those. I can speak from the perspective of the US system.

The general order of training goes:

  1. Undergraduate (Bachelor degree)
  2. Medical School (MD or DO)
  3. Residency (in a specialty) training by practicing in your field under supervision of "attending physicians," after which you complete a boards exam and are "board certified" in that specialty.
    • After this step you can either apply to enter a FELLOWSHIP or you can go practice in your field independently.
  4. Optional next step: Fellowship (in a subspecialty) where you similarly practice the subspecialty under attendings, and take a boards exam etc.

Subspecialties such as Cardiology, Hematology-Oncology, Rheumatology, etc cannot be selected straight out of medical school. You must first complete a residency in Internal Medicine; similarly for Pediatric Cardiology, a residency in Pediatrics.

This list breaks down the specialties from which you can enter specific subspecialties:

They are too long to copy here, but definitely check it out - it should help a lot to see how it breaks down.

The specialties referred to as "generalists" are NOT the same as GP (General Practice)

Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, and Pediatrics are specialties. Those residencies are 3 or 4 years long and have a boards exam at the end. An IM, FM, or Peds boarded physician is sometimes referred to as a "generalist." A generalist is NOT the same as a GP (General Practice) physician.

The term "generalist" comes from the fact that these specialties practice broadly, rather than focused on a specific narrow field. FM, IM, and Peds all do learn quite a bit of cardiology, rheumatology, heme-onc, etc and can practice almost everything non-surgical at least at a basic level. But they will refer to a Cardiologist (a subspecialist who spent 3 additional years in a fellowship studying just cardiology AFTER doing 3 years of Internal Medicine) for extremely complex cases, procedures (stents, pacemakers, ablations), and other things not within their scope of practice.

Family Medicine is unique in that it includes adult medicine, pediatric medicine, and basic obstetrics (minus the extensive surgical training that the OB/GYN specialists obtain). From FM you can go to subspecialties like sports med, geriatrics, palliative care, adolescent med... but not cardiology or rheumatology. FM might be considered the broadest specialty of all.

General Practice is a special case, and is not a residency (at least not in the USA).

Internationally, a General Practice physician (GP) functions similarly to a Primary Care Provider in the USA (a PCP, which is generally either IM FM or Peds in the USA), providing "generalist" type care of most concerns and chronic disease management, referring to specialists for complex cases etc.

In many countries, it's its own residency. In some, it's what you are after completing the one or two year "Internship" type training post-medical-school. Perhaps someone outside the USA can help beef this section up :)

Within the USA, a GP is usually a physician who did a single year of residency (or more, but did not sit for their specialty boards) and applied for a license. They are not boarded in any particular specialty. Many of these have received extensive on-the-job training and are hired to practice in primary care or even in other specialty offices - but aren't boarded.

When considering medical management of children, they are not just smaller-sized adults.

That is why all subspecialties branch off of adult medicine (IM) or child medicine (Pediatrics). Slightly different, pediatric surgery (and surgical subspecialties) is usually a subspecialty done AFTER a surgical residency like General Surgery or Orthopedic Surgery.

There are sometimes multiple ways to arrive at a subspecialty.

For example, a Pediatric Emergency physician can either go from Emergency Medicine to Peds EM fellowship, or Pediatrics to and EM fellowship. A Geriatrician could have come from either Internal Medicine or Family Medicine.


If a doctor is boarded in a subspecialty, then almost certianly she/he is also boarded in a specialty.

Since a Cardiologist has to go through Internal Medicine to get to Cardiology, the vast majority of them sit for the boards exams for Internal Medicine.

  • 1
    Thank you for such a detailed answer. I'm making list for a doctor website, basically to have the ability to group doctors and content. I got few more questions: 1) Does that mean that if I have a subspecialty, I definitely have a specialty also, for example, if I'm a Neurotologist (subspecialty), that means, that I am also a Otolaryngologist (specialty)? 2) General practitioner does not have any specialty? Kind of a "basic level doctor"? 3) Are this subspecialties could be treated as equal "Internal Medicine/Sleep Medicine" and "Anesthesiology/Sleep Medicine"? Appreciate your time
    – ZuzEL
    Jul 28, 2019 at 10:06
  • 1
    You're welcome. Definitely have an actual doctor (from a few countries if you're trying to go international) take a look at the layout before you publish to make sure it makes sense. Also, perhaps one of our participating subspecialists @GrahamChiu can edit my final section to be more accurate if indeed many do not get/maintain IM boards?
    – DoctorWhom
    Jul 29, 2019 at 4:06
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    Lastly, no I would not call the Sleep Medicine specialty as "Internal Medicine / Sleep Medicine" but you could refer to a physician who is a Sleep Medicine subspecialist as such. If your question is whether the two are equal (IM/Sleep vs FM/Sleep) the answer is yes in terms of their practice in Sleep Medicine. In terms of their Sleep Medicine practice, what might differentiate them more is actually what they learned in their fellowship training, not their initial specialty IM vs FM.
    – DoctorWhom
    Jul 29, 2019 at 4:09

To elaborate from a UK perspective, especially regarding two of the comments:

  1. Genera Practitioner is not a “basic level” kind of Doctor in the UK. It has a separate specialist training programme, run by the Royal College of General Practitioners. Broadly, this programme takes about 50% of UK trainees, and produces doctors with a breadth and depth of medical knowledge to manage the primary presentations (the first symptoms a patient seeks help for) of most conditions including medical, surgical and psychiatric pathology. Where they cannot be managed in the community, they refer to specialist (usually hospital based) services. In the UK they have a ‘gate keeper’ role (Google that for lots discussion about how that fits into the UK health system). They are definitely not ‘basic level’, it’s a specialty in its own right. Some General Practitioners also become ‘GPwSI’ (pronounced gypsy), meaning GP with special interest in another specialty e.g. musculoskeletal, cardiology, family planning. They often have an extended role or cross over into some hospital level service provision.
  2. Not all subspecialties are created equal! There are many ways to become a sleep specialist (in the UK it’s often via Respiratory as well as the route mentioned). ITU can come via anaesthetics and general medicine, breast surgery via general and plastics, hand surgery via Ortho and plastics, spinal surgery via Ortho and Neurosurgery. These ‘interface’ specialties group people with a shared regional interest but bring different skills e.g. the scope of practice for an orthopaedic hand surgeon and a plastic hand surgeons will overlap but not be exactly the same.
  • Excellent points! May I incorporate them into my answer? Specifically the GP portion - my answer is sorely lacking in that information about how it works outside the USA!
    – DoctorWhom
    Jul 30, 2019 at 19:30
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    Feel free: I’m new to SE/SO (as a contributor, not a user: it’s got me out of many scrapes in the past), so I don’t know how to edit it, but use whatever you like. Equally, happy to add a specific UK perspective if you have any questions (within the limits of an orthopod’s brain...)
    – Garfjeld
    Jul 30, 2019 at 20:49
  • I literally laughed out loud at your comment - didn't know that orthopod self-deprication jokes were common in the UK as well!! I may have chosen a generalist field but have top respects for my ortho colleagues' knowledge base, mastery of all things MSK and skills with jack-hammer-looking OR tools. Welcome to MedicalSciences SE! We've been trying to engage more physicians here as we shifted our scope to be more professional/student level. You are more than welcome to remain an observer of course, but we'd thrilled for any comments or answers if you feel like dropping in now and then!
    – DoctorWhom
    Jul 30, 2019 at 21:01

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