What is a medical consultant?

A medical consultant is a senior doctor with several years of specialist training. The term – which usually shortens to consultant – is specific to the United Kingdom, Ireland, and certain other countries.

After graduating from medical school, consultants specialize in a particular area of medicine. At this point, their training diverges from that of general practitioners (GPs).

Examples of medical fields that consultants can specialize in include: gynecology, pediatrics, cardiology, dermatology, and psychiatry.

According to the British Medical Association (BMA), it can take up to 8 years for qualified doctors to train as consultants.

To practice in the U.K., consultants must be on the specialist register of the General Medical Council (GMC).

The role that corresponds to the U.K.’s consultant is known as attending physician in the United States and Canada.

Referrals to consultants

To see a consultant under the National Health Service (NHS), patients typically see their GP first. The GP suggests which consultant they see and writes them a referral letter.

The referral letter will outline the patient’s medical history and give details that the consultant needs to pay particular attention to.

U.K. patients can also get an assessment or treatment from a specialist without a GP referral. However, the BMA recommend that patients see their GP first and get a referral from them, even if they are doing so privately.

Many consultants do not see patients unless they have a referral from their GP, even if they are paying privately or have private medical insurance. Also, some private insurance policies do not cover specialist consultations without GP referrals.

Hospital consultants

Most medical consultants in the U.K. work in hospitals. They lead multidisciplinary teams comprising doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals.

On admission to a U.K. hospital, each patient will have a named consultant who is responsible for their care. The person who sees the patient could be the named consultant or a member of the consultant-led team.

A typical day for a consultant depends on their specialty.

A consultant dermatologist, for instance, may work from 09:00 to 17:00 hours. In contrast, a consultant who specializes in vascular surgery may have to attend the hospital in the middle of the night to treat a patient with severe bleeding.

Depending on their role and specialism, consultants may be on call. On-call consultants are responsible for acute admissions that may occur at any time of day.

Consultants who conduct daily ward rounds and head specialist afternoon clinics, on the other hand, tend not to be on call.