When you’re not feeling your best, you want the best care from the right physician. But with so many different types of doctors out there, it can be hard to choose the best health care professional for your unique needs.
Family medicine doctors, often called family practitioners, and internal medicine doctors, also known as internists, are the most common first touchpoints for patients who need general care. While they both fall under the umbrella of “primary care,” there are important differences between the two specialties, including the range of patients and conditions they treat, how they’re trained and where they practice.
Family Practitioners and Internists Focus on Different Patients
Your age is an important consideration when choosing between a family medicine doctor and an internal medicine doctor. Since age can play an important role in identifying health risks and providing the right preventive care, it’s essential to find a doctor who has training and experience treating people in your age group.
Family doctors see patients of all ages ranging from infants, children and teens to adults and seniors. While the term “family doctor” may imply this type of care is focused on parents and children, family doctors are trained to care for patients in every stage of life. Establishing a long-term relationship with a family medicine specialist is an excellent way to ensure you have a doctor who’s attuned to your overall health and wellness.
Internal medicine doctors primarily treat adults. While some internists do treat patients under the age of 18, this is less common and they’re required to have specialized training in pediatrics.
Family Doctors and Internists Treat Different Conditions
Because family medicine doctors treat such a wide age range, they also treat many conditions. Family doctors can identify health risks at any stage of life, recommend the right preventive care and treat many illnesses and injuries. Taking a whole-body approach to health and wellness, they address everything from smoking cessation to mental health issues. Family medicine doctors offer:
- Annual exams and physicals
- Health screenings
- Lifestyle coaching
- Prescription medication management
- Treatment for acute conditions such as cold or flu
- Treatment of some chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes
- Vaccines and immunizations
- Women’s health and GYN services such as Pap tests and breast exams
Family medicine doctors can also identify signs of chronic health conditions and may refer you to a specialist for further diagnosis or treatment. For instance, if your family doctor finds an irregular mole during a routine skin cancer screening, he or she may recommend you visit a dermatologist for evaluation and diagnosis. Your family medicine doctor can help coordinate care between specialists to maintain a big picture view of your health. They can also treat conditions with great skill and care.
While they also offer exams, screenings and certain types of preventive care, internal medicine doctors can help patients manage chronic illnesses that affect the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys, and treat chronic conditions that occur simultaneously. Some of the most common conditions that internists treat include:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Joint conditions
- Lung disease
- Respiratory illnesses
- Sleep disorders
Family Medicine and Internal Medicine Doctors Are Trained Differently
Studies for family practitioners and internists begin much the same way, with four years of medical school and three years of residency. During this time, they learn the same general curriculum and receive mostly the same training. It’s what happens next that creates the differences between the two types of physicians.
Family medicine doctors sometimes start practicing right after residency, but most choose to continue their education with a specific focus on pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and geriatrics.
Internal medicine doctors tend to study for several more years with a specific emphasis on hospital-based care. An internal medicine doctor might also undergo subspecialty training to become a pulmonologist or a cardiologist, for example.
Family Medicine Specialists and Internists Practice in Different Care Settings
Family doctors almost always see you in an outpatient clinic or office. Some simple procedures such as sutures, colonoscopies and joint injections can be performed right in the office. There are even virtual care options for family medicine that allow you to connect with a doctor via a smartphone, tablet or desktop computer — all while still receiving the comprehensive range of whole-person care you would expect from an in-person visit.
Internal medicine doctors may see you in an outpatient or inpatient setting. Primary care internists will likely see patients in an office, whereas secondary care internists (or hospitalists) will see patients in an inpatient hospital setting.
Should I See a Family Doctor or an Internist?
When considering whether you should see a family doctor or an internist, the most important factor is your own comfort level. You should feel completely confident with the person helping you navigate a life of whole-person wellness. If you’re not sure which type of physician you should choose, you might consider a few significant factors such as:
Do you have young children? Are you caring for aging parents? Many people find it beneficial to choose one doctor for their entire family. This allows the doctor to get to know your family’s unique dynamics and become familiar with possible genetic health risks and family health histories. While they can also treat specific conditions unique to you, a family practitioner may be the right choice for comprehensive, whole-family care.
Do you have an existing health condition that may need more specialized care? Chronic diseases such as arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or diabetes may make an internal medicine doctor with specialty training the right choice for you. He or she can deeply assess, diagnose and treat your particular issue.
Follow Your Instincts
Ultimately, you should choose a doctor who listens to your questions and provides compassionate, informative answers. Your primary care doctor can be your lifelong partner in whole health and educate you about health risks, prevent the development of acute and chronic illnesses, and help you achieve lasting wellness. Contact the Member Experience Center at 855-747-7476 and let us help you find a physician that fits your needs!