The terms family medicine and internal medicine often cause confusion, and it doesn’t help that they’re often (incorrectly) used interchangeably. Even the American College of Physicians admits that it’s confusing.
But there’s one big difference between these two practice areas, and it’s not the medical school the physicians attend.
The biggest difference between internal medicine and family medicine is the type of patient they see. Knowing and understanding the difference can help make sure you select the best practice for your needs. Let’s break it down with a few fast facts to help you remember.
Both family medicine and internal medicine doctors are considered primary care physicians. This means they’re the first line of defense for helping you stay healthy.
A primary care physician is a doctor who provides both the first contact for a person with an undiagnosed health concern, as well as continuing care of varied medical conditions not limited by cause, organ system, or diagnosis. Emergency physicians are sometimes counted as primary care physicians. They may treat medical issues that range from critical care to infectious diseases and everything in between.
Here’s where the distinction becomes important: Family physicians serve the health needs of the entire family. While certain doctors at the practice may specialize in certain areas (for example, pediatrics or women’s health), the practice is equipped to take care of both children and adults throughout their life span.
Your family doctor is a general practitioner. The medical conditions they treat are not confined to specific organs of the body, and they have particular skills for treating people with multiple health issues. Family doctors do your yearly check-up, but they can also help you manage chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. They can treat acute situations such as sinus infections and injuries.
Internal medicine practices are designed to take care of adult patients only. This means patients must be over 18-years-old to receive care. These doctors may also be called general internists.
Internists (as all doctors who completed an internal medicine residency are called) can be generalists or sub-specialists in areas like cardiology or rheumatology. Patients with multiple problems and medications would typically be seen by an internist.
Adults have two choices for a primary care physician: a family practitioner (or general practitioner) or a general internal medicine physician. What factors should weigh into your decision when choosing a practice?
The most important deciding factor should be your comfort level with your doctor. As convenient as it can be to have your entire family treated at the same practice, you need to make sure your primary care physician is someone you feel comfortable discussing sensitive health topics with—regardless of whether that doctor works at a family medicine or internal medicine practice.
Convenience is also a consideration. A family medicine practice could be the best fit if you have a family because starting your children with a family medicine practitioner ensures they won’t have to find a new doctor once they turn 18.
But we know that it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you’ll need to be seen right away, even if it’s not an emergency. That’s why we’re now offering convenient care in Elyria. We’ve extended hours and have someone available to treat a variety of illnesses. If you’d like to learn more about the difference between a convenient care facility and say, an emergency department, we have a graphic that can help.