As a patient, you may wonder why you should care about the difference between Internal Medicine and Primary Care providers (PCPs) when seeking medical care. Understanding these distinctions can help you make informed decisions about your healthcare and ensure that you receive the most appropriate and comprehensive care for your specific needs.
Internal medicine doctors work exclusively with adult patients 18 years of age or older. From adolescence through senior years, internal medicine doctors can manage chronic health conditions, conduct routine screenings, and provide preventative care to adult patients.
PCPs, on the other hand, provide care to patients of all ages— from newborns to the elderly. For this reason, it’s common for all members of the family to see the same PCP, or “family medicine doctor,” through the many changing seasons of life.
Scope of Medical Practice
Not only do internal medicine and primary care physicians differ in who they treat, but the scope of services they offer varies, too.
Internal medicine doctors undergo at least three years of training to provide comprehensive care and manage complex medical conditions for adult patients. Also referred to as “internists” or “general internists,” internal medicine physicians may also pursue additional training to specialize in areas such as neurology, cardiology, dermatology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, geriatrics, and more.
PCPs often serve as a “gatekeeper” within the medical process— the first point of contact for patients’ health needs. As such, a PCP coordinates overall care, referring patients of all ages to specialists for more specific health concerns. Additionally, PCPs offer preventative care services, health maintenance, and diagnoses and treatment of common health ailments.
Education and Training
Both internal medicine doctors and primary care physicians must complete a three-year residency program following medical school. However, postgraduate training looks different for each.
Medical residency for Internal Medicine Doctors usually takes place in a hospital setting. Caring for hospitalized patients, internists-in-training learn hands-on training in emergency medicine, critical care, and medical sub-specialty care. During residency, trainees must gain experience in a wide variety of specialities in order to care for adults, including:
- Office Gynecology
- Non-Operative Orthopedics
- Palliative Medicine
- Sleep Medicine
- Rehabilitation Medicine
Internal medicine residents can then extend their training to subspecialize in other areas of medicine.
While PCPs undergo a year of similar inpatient training, the following two years of residency are split among rotations in pediatrics, OBGYN, and other medical disciplines. During residency, family medicine trainees must gain experience in the following, and more, to effectively treat patients of all ages:
- Behavioral Health Issues
- Common Skin Diseases
- Population Health
- Health System Management
- General Wellness
- Disease Prevention
Family medicine physicians can remain a primary care doctor while pursuing fellowships or certificates in more niched fields such as maternal-child health, sports medicine, geriatrics, adolescent medicine, and more. This well rounded exposure to a variety of specialties primes PCPs to provide comprehensive medical care to patients of all ages.
Coordinating Care and Referrals for Patients
It’s possible for both Internal Medicine Doctors and PCPs to be the first point of contact with certain health conditions. However, the referral process may look different between the two.
Internal Medicine Doctors often specialize in distinct medicine disciplines and can refer patients to other internal medicine subspecialists who can address their care. Research shows internists make high percentages of referrals to radiologists (25 percent), cardiologists (14 percent), and gastroenterologists (7 percent).
PCPs undergo training to gain a broad understanding of various medical specialists and treat patients of all ages. When their patients need referrals, they can coordinate care across different specialities within their network, often when the condition is beyond their scope of practice.
Job Setting and Work Environment
While primary care specialty doesn’t guarantee or determine job setting, internal medicine doctors typically work in inpatient hospital settings while primary care physicians usually work in the outpatient setting.
In the hospital setting, internal medicine doctors may assist patients in particular wings of the hospital such as the intensive care unit. Internal medicine doctors have a greater chance of encountering sicker patients working in the inpatient setting. Less commonly, internal medicine doctors may work in clinics in outpatient settings, where they deal with health screenings, vaccinations, milder health conditions, and more.
The majority of primary care physicians, on the other hand, work in outpatient clinical settings. They are more likely to have standard office hours and deal frequently with preventive medicine, health screenings, and management of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and more.
Choosing Between Internal Medicine vs. Primary Care in Gilford, CT
There are some overlapping characteristics between primary care providers and internal medicine doctors. However, medical training, scope of practice, patient populations, and referral systems are different.
It’s important to choose a healthcare provider based on your specific health needs. Learn more about finding the right Internal Medicine vs. Primary Care in Gilford, CT.
Learn More About PACT
Physicians Alliance of Connecticut (PACT) is a multi-specialty medical group led and operated by over 30 physician partners and more than 100 healthcare providers. We are committed to healthcare excellence, innovation, safety, and quality in private-practice patient care in the New Haven area of Connecticut.