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Comparing Family Medicine Vs. Internal Medicine

When choosing a medical care provider for you and your family, there are now more options available than ever. However, most of these primary care options can be boiled down into two categories – family medicine and internal medicine.

These specialties require the same amount of medical schooling and knowledge and are supervised by doctors, nurse practitioners, and other medical professionals. Apart from these similarities, as well as the fact that both medical specialties treat patients, they offer different benefits for patients.

If you are searching for a new primary care physician or are seeking medical care and are uncertain if family or internal medicine is right for you, you have come to the right place. In this article, we will break down the differences and similarities between family medicine vs. internal medicine so you can have the necessary knowledge to make the best choice.

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What is Family Medicine?

As the name implies, family medicine consists of doctors who can treat every member of a family. This coverage includes children, parents, grandparents, and other family members, regardless of age or gender.

However, family medicine doctors aren’t limited strictly to “families.” Instead, the “family” in family medicine refers to how the specialty originated in the 1960s. Family medicine doctors can treat anyone and everyone, regardless of whether an individual or part of a family.

In most cases, family medicine doctors are the first point of contact for all of their patient’s medical needs.1 Following a visit and evaluation, the family doctor can refer their patients to specialists or provide treatment directly.

Doctors of family medicine may not necessarily specialize in one element of medicine but instead possess a basic knowledge of many different specialties and subspecialties.

What Does Family Medicine Include?

Family medicine requires a broad scope of knowledge, including diagnostic skills, physical examinations, running tests, and knowing when it’s necessary to refer patients to specialists.
A family medicine doctor can do everything that any other doctor can do. The main difference is that they have space and equipment limitations that internal doctors at a hospital do not need to consider.

Family doctors treat a wide array of conditions and patients and are able to diagnose, treat, and manage both simple and complex situations, and they often do so in an outpatient setting rather than in a hospital.

What is Internal Medicine?

Internal medicine is a much older specialty than family medicine and has been ongoing since the 1800s. The reason it’s referred to as internal medicine is because these doctors typically see their clients in a hospital setting. As such, they’re often referred to as internists.

As with family medicine, internal medicine involves knowledge of a wide range of illnesses and conditions. Internists must have the ability to diagnose, treat, and manage these conditions and how to prevent them. A point of emphasis for internists is that they need to know how to treat chronic conditions and illnesses that affect multiple systems and organs.

What Does Internal Medicine Include?

Internal medicine is similar to family medicine in many regards. However, internists focus mainly on complex conditions potentially requiring hospitalization, as well as treating a wide range of cancers and other chronic conditions.

Here are some of the conditions that an internist can treat and diagnose.

  • Chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis
  • UTIs, pneumonia, and other infectious diseases
  • Autoimmune disorders that affect the immune system
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions, including arthritis and IBS
  • Conditions affecting the liver, kidneys, heart, and other major organs
  • Blood diseases such as anemia

Similarities and Differences Between Family Medicine and Internal Medicine

Now that you have a better idea of these two specialties, let’s look at their similarities and differences.

Let’s start by examining the similarities between family medicine and internal medicine.

Scope of Knowledge

The main similarity between family and internal medicine is that both specialties require a broad range of knowledge. Family doctors and internists are relied on by their patients to be able to diagnose, treat, and manage their conditions.

How Long They Keep Their Patients

Another similarity between the two specialties is that family doctors and internists tend to retain their patients for their entire lives. This duration starkly contrasts with other doctors specializing in treating specific diseases or body systems. In these cases, patients stick with their specialist until their condition is resolved and then move on. Internists and family doctors, however, retain their patients long-term to manage their ongoing care needs.

Necessary Training

Internal and family medicine doctors undergo strenuous training in undergraduate and medical school. Additionally, they both go through a 3-year residency program and require additional training and experience if they want to pursue a specialty.

While internal doctors and family physicians share many overlapping elements, they also have differentiating qualities that set them apart.

The Age of Their Patients

The biggest difference between internal medicine and family medicine is in the ages of the patients they see. While both specialists see adult patients from 18 to 100+, family doctors also treat children. Internists, on the other hand, only see adult patients and do not require pediatric training.

Additional Required Training

Seeing as how family medicine doctors treat children as well as adults, they must complete pediatric training. Although they do not require pediatric training, internal medicine doctors can offer more specialty and subspecialty training than family medicine doctors. This additional knowledge base is necessary because internal doctors are expected to know more about complex diseases than other types of doctors.

Some internists target unique areas of internal medicine involving their specialty. A few subspecialties that internists need to know about include the following:

  • Nephrology
  • Immunology
  • Cardiology
  • Oncology
  • Rheumatology
  • Nephrology
  • Endocrinology
  • Infectious diseases

Conditions They Treat

Both types of doctors treat a wide range of conditions in their patients and are required to have a comprehensive knowledge base.

However, internal doctors are viewed more as specialists in treating and diagnosing less common conditions. As such, they are required to have more training in subspecialties than family doctors. Internists are also trained in treating conditions affecting internal organs and body systems than family doctors.

The Practice Setting

Internal doctors primarily practice their specialty and treat their patients inside a hospital. On the other hand, family doctors operate mainly in outpatient settings and clinics, requiring a lesser need for an abundance of medical equipment and assisting personnel as internal doctors.

Which Option Is Right For Me?

As you can see, internal medicine and family medicine have many similarities and differences. Determining why you need them is the main distinguishing factor when choosing between a family doctor and an internist.

Those searching for a primary care physician who can provide for the basic care needs of you and everyone in your family, regardless of their age, may determine family medicine to be the most advantageous approach.

If you have a medical condition that requires special care or diagnostic measures, you may need internal medicine. In some cases, your family doctor will even refer you to an internist if they are unable to handle your medical needs.

older person working on the computer

It’s also important to consider whether you have children that require treatment, as family doctors can treat them, but internists cannot.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right medical professional is important to ensure you get the best help for your needs. Family medicine doctors can treat patients of all ages and comprehensively understand a broad range of medical conditions. Internists, on the other hand, have more in-depth knowledge of chronic and less common medical conditions, as well as issues that affect major organs or body systems.

By understanding the many similarities and differences between family and internal doctors, you should now have the information you need to choose the right one for your needs.

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[1] A Definition of Family Medicine and General Practice. Hashim MJ.

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