Health Care

Family Medicine vs. Internal Medicine

A man discussing his symptoms with his doctor.

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When you’re not feeling your best, you want the right care from the right physician. But with so many 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 people 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 and internal medicine doctor. It’s essential to find a doctor who has training and experience treating people in your age group, since age can play an important role in identifying health risks and providing the right preventive care.

Family doctors see patients of all ages, 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.

An internal medicine doctor, on the other hand, only treats 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 Internal Medicine Doctors Treat Different Conditions

Because family medicine doctors treat such a wide range of ages, they also treat a wide range of 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.

While they also offer exams, screenings and certain types of preventive care, internal medicine doctors can help adult 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:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Joint conditions
  • Lung disease
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Sleep disorders

Family Medicine Doctors and Internal Medicine Specialist 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, for the most part, 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 specific focus on pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and geriatrics — all so they’re positioned well to care for patients at every age and stage.

Internal medicine doctors, on the other hand, tend to study for several more years with specific emphasis on hospital-based care. Additional training may also focus on subspecialties such as emergency medicine and critical care, for example.

Family Medicine Specialists and Internists Practice in Different Care Settings

Family doctors will almost always see you in an outpatient clinic or office, and 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 smart phone, tablet or desktop computer — all while still offering the comprehensive range of whole-person care you would expect from an in-person visit.

Internal medicine doctors, however, may see you in an outpatient or inpatient setting. Primary care internists will likely see patients in an office, whereas secondary care internists (also referred to as hospitalists) will see patients in an inpatient hospital setting.

Should I See a Family Doctor or an Internist?

When considering the question, “Should I see a family doctor or an internist?,” the most important factor to consider 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

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. 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. A family practitioner may be the right choice for comprehensive, whole-family care.

Your Health

Do you have an existing health condition? Chronic diseases such as arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) or diabetes may make it necessary for you to see an internal medicine doctor with sub-specialty training who can more deeply assess, diagnose and treat your particular issue.

Follow Your Instincts

At the end of the day, trust your gut. Choose a doctor who listens to your questions and provides helpful, informative answers. Your primary care doctor should be your lifelong partner for whole-person health and demonstrate a commitment to educating you about health risks, preventing the development of acute and chronic illnesses and helping you achieve lasting health in body, mind and spirit. Click here to learn more about primary care at AdventHealth.

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