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Internal Medicine vs Family Practice Specialists: Understanding the Differences…and which one is right for you?

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When looking for a primary care physician (PCP), we are often asked about the difference between family practices and internal medicine physicians. As a patient, it is always important to know these distinctions as they can help you make the right decision for you and potentially your family’s care. While these disciplines have much in common, there is some crucial divergence when it comes to patient population, setting and scope of practice that can impact your provider selection.

How Family Practice and Internal Medicine Physicians are Similar

#1 Both are Primary Care Physicians

The first point, and perhaps most important, is that both family practice specialists and internal medicine specialists, also called internists, are primary care physicians (PCPs). This term means that these doctors serve as your first point of contact for most medical issues. Another vital piece of information is that most insurance plans will recognize both these types of specialists as PCPs for co-pay and billing purposes. Other common PCP specialties include pediatricians and geriatricians – or physicians who specialize in treating elderly patients.

So, if you have a cold, a sprained wrist, or need to schedule preventative health maintenance, you visit your PCP. In most cases, they will know you and your medical situation best and take the lead in coordinating care among any other specialists that you see. Your PCP will let you know when it’s time for a colonoscopy, a mammogram, a flu vaccine, or any other routine preventative or surveillance procedure.

Of course, there may be times when your PCP needs to refer you to another specialist. For example, a heart condition may necessitate a visit to a cardiologist. In these cases, your PCP will communicate with the other specialist and vice versa so that your entire healthcare team is on the same page.

#2 Both are Specialists

After graduation from medical school, a newly-minted doctor goes on to residency. During residency, they choose a specialization and receive several years of hands-on experience and training. Both internal medicine and family practice are specialties, just like neurology, nephrology, orthopedics, and countless other disciplines.

After completion of their residency, the doctor can choose to become board-certified. Certification is available through a rigorous examination process administered by the board in that particular specialty. There are American boards for both internists and family medicine physicians. At PACT, all of our physicians are required to be board-certified in their respective specialties

How Family Practice and Internal Medicine Physicians are Different

#1 Training Focus

Although the length of basic training for both internal medicine and family medicine is three years, each discipline emerges with different strengths and a unique skill set. Internal medicine education not only includes experience in general medicine, but also internal medicine subspecialties, such as endocrinology, rheumatology and infectious diseases. And training focuses solely on adult care.

On the other hand, family medicine providers receive a broader education since it also includes training in the care of children, as well as procedures and services typically provided by other specialties, such as gynecology. The broad training allows family medicine physicians to focus on outpatient medicine, continuity of care, health maintenance and disease prevention.

#2 Age of Patients They Care For

One major difference is that internists usually only treat adults, whereas family medicine doctors will typically see patients within a greater age range. At PACT, we care for patients anywhere from post-vaccination age all the way to end of life. There is no universal lower age limit to see an internist. The exact age differs based on individual practice or hospital policy, but common cutoffs are 16, 18, or 20 years of age.

#3 Where They Practice

Another distinction is that while internists mostly practice at their own offices as do family medicine physicians, traditionally internists also see their patients in a hospital when they have been admitted. Although PACT internists solely see patients in office.

#4 Women’s Health Services

Finally, family medicine specialists are likely to offer some women’s health services as well. For example, many family medicine physicians will perform Pap smears and breast exams, particularly if a female patient does not have an OB-GYN they see regularly. On the other hand, internists often also have some training in other specializations – ophthalmology or dermatology, for example.

Which Type of Physician is Right for You?

One factor to help you choose between an internist or family medicine specialist as your PCP is your family structure and your desire for convenient healthcare. Both of these specialists can be an excellent choice for your PCP, but if you’d like to visit the same doctor for both your and your family’s medical needs, then a family medicine doctor would make more sense. Of course, family medicine physicians also see individuals, so you can select one as your PCP even if you are single and childless.

Location may play a significant role in your decision. Perhaps you live near an internist or see other specialists in their hospital. If you don’t need a PCP who also treats children or adolescents, then an internist is an option.

Do the Research

Remember, internists and family medicine physicians do not have universal policies. Some family medicine clinicians choose not to take on very young children as patients. A certain internist might also be experienced in geriatrics – a perfect choice if you accompany an elderly family member to their doctor’s appointments. If you are seeking a PCP, simply search the web or call their office and ask some basic questions to discover if they are right for you.

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