Both the role of the physician and the meaning of the word itself vary around the world. Degrees and other qualifications vary widely, but there are some common elements, such as medical ethics requiring that physicians show consideration, compassion, and benevolence for their patients.
Around the world the term physician refers to a specialist in internal medicine or one of its many sub-specialties (especially as opposed to a specialist in surgery). This meaning of physician conveys a sense of expertise in treatment by drugs or medications, rather than by the procedures of surgeons.
This term is at least nine hundred years old in English: physicians and surgeons were once members of separate professions, and traditionally were rivals. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, gives a Middle English quotation making this contrast, from as early as 1400: "O Lord, whi is it so greet difference betwixe a cirugian and a physician."
Henry VIII granted a charter to the London Royal College of Physicians in 1518. It was not until 1540 that he granted the Company of Barber-Surgeons (ancestor of the Royal College of Surgeons) its separate charter. In the same year, the English monarch established the Regius Professorship of Physic at the University of Cambridge. Newer universities would probably describe such an academic as a professor of internal medicine. Hence, in the 16th century, physic meant roughly what internal medicine does now.
Currently, a specialist physician in the United States may be described as an internist. Another term, hospitalist, was introduced in 1996, to describe US specialists in internal medicine who work largely or exclusively in hospitals. Such 'hospitalists' now make up about 19% of all US general internists, who are often called general physicians in Commonwealth countries.