Senior Care - How to Provide Elderly Independence

Internists vs Family Medicine Physicians: How These Primary Care Doctors Differ

by Stephen Silva

You likely know that you should visit a primary care physician on a regular basis to obtain preventative care services. However, you may not understand how the different types of primary care practitioners differ. While there are six main types of primary care practitioners (PCPs), internists and family medicine practitioners are among the most common primary care doctors today. 

Read on to learn how these two primary care doctor types differ to help you decide which PCP type may be best for you and your specific healthcare needs. 

Post-Graduate Training

While both internists and family medicine physicians study the same topics in medical school, their postgraduate training, also called residencies, differ.

Internal medicine practitioners complete three years of postgraduate training inside of a hospital. There, they learn emergency medicine, critical care, and how to care for patients hospitalized for a variety of health concerns. They may also train to perform some specialized adult medicine types, such as cardiology or pulmonology. 

On the other hand, family medicine practitioners typically only spend about one year of their postgraduate residency caring for patients in a hospital setting. The final two years of their residency are spent inside various physician's offices learning to care for patients in a medical office setting. 

Services Offered

While both internists and family medicine doctors make great PCPs, internists only treat adults, while family medicine doctors often treat patients of all ages ranging from small babies to the elderly. In addition, internists often split their work hours between caring for ill patients in a hospital and performing preventative medicine in an office setting, while family medicine doctors spend all or most of their time in their offices. For this reason, the office hours of a family medicine doctor are often longer.

However, due to their extensive training with adults, learning how to treat common adult health problems, many internists are able to diagnose and treat adults with more serious or advanced health conditions than family doctors can. When an adult patient has signs of a complex or advanced disease, a family doctor will often refer the patient to a specialist in the field of the suspected health problem instead of diagnosing the condition on their own. 

Which PCP Type is Best for You? 

When deciding whether to choose a family medicine doctor or internist as your primary care physician, you should keep their unique skill sets in mind.

If you have children and are in generally good health, then you can feel good about taking your entire family to a family doctor for routine medical exams and preventative care. On the other hand, if you are a single adult who already suffers from a serious health problem, then you may consider visiting an internist with advanced training in the specific condition you suffer from to potentially obtain treatment for your disease and preventative care from one doctor alone. 

Keep these facts in mind when choosing a new primary care physician for yourself or your family.