Health Care

Family Medicine vs. Internal Medicine

A Smiling Physician Speaks to a Patient in an Exam Room
Choose the health content that's right for you, and get it delivered right in your inbox

When you’re not feeling your best, you want the best care from the right physician. But with so many different types of doctors, choosing the best health care professional for your unique needs can be hard. In addition to specialists for varying health conditions, it’s important to have a primary care provider who can care for your general health needs. These providers are known as family medicine or internal medicine doctors.

Family Medicine vs. Internal Medicine

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 both fall under the same 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.

Differences Between Family Medicine and Internal Medicine

Family Practitioners and Internists Focus on Different Patients

Since age can play an important role in identifying health risks and providing the right preventive care, finding a doctor with training and experience in treating people in your age group is essential.

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 a doctor is tuned in to your overall health and wellness.

Internal medicine doctors primarily treat adults. While some internists treat patients under 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, they 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 affecting the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys and treat chronic conditions simultaneously. Some of the most common conditions that internists treat include:

  • Diabetes
  • 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. What happens next 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, specifically emphasizing hospital-based care. For example, an internal medicine doctor might also undergo subspecialty training to become a pulmonologist or a cardiologist.

Internal medicine physicians focus on optimizing and managing patients’ symptoms through constant monitoring and updating of treatments as needed.

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. Many family medicine providers now also offer virtual care options 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.

Choosing Between a Family Doctor and an Internist

When considering whether you should see a family medicine physician or an internal medicine doctor, the most important factor is your 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:

Your Family

Do you have young children? Are you caring for aging parents? Many people find it beneficial to choose one doctor for their entire family. Doing so lets your doctor 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.

Your Health

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. They 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.

Choosing AdventHealth

Having a primary care provider you trust is invaluable. Learn more about your options and how our family medicine and internal medicine providers can help you throughout your health care journey and help you feel whole in body, mind and spirit.

Recent Blogs

A physician talks to her patient.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS): Symptoms and Treatment Options
Older Man talking his doctor about Aquablation.
Early Detection of Prostate Cancer Can Save Lives
Understanding Your Heart Rates
A mother buckles her child into a car seat in the back of a car.
5 Tips to Help You Remember Your Child is in the Car
Identifying and Caring for Hernias in Children
View More Articles