It’s the middle of the night and you’re experiencing sudden and excruciating abdominal pain. Maybe you had too many slices of pizza for dinner, or maybe you’re lactose intolerant. Either way, your health anxiety has also kicked in – and you need to see a doctor at the earliest. But do you go to an internal medicine doctor or call your family medicine doctor? What even is the difference between the two?
No need to panic! Internal medicine and family medicine tend to appear similar when it comes to providing preventive care and treating a range of medical issues. Their practice emphasis and approaches have subtle differences, and sometimes you might need to avail the services of one over the other. This article will provide you all the information you need to choose between a family medicine vs an internal medicine doctor.
While internists exclusively cater to adult patients (those above 18), family medicine facilitates people of all ages. You can say that family medicine is a combination of pediatrics, adolescent medicine, adult medicine, and geriatrics. Internists on the other hand deal with a range of complex and rare cases.
Family medicine vs internal medicine may have a stark contrast in their clinical settings, but the nature of these practices enables doctors to cultivate long-term affiliations with their patients.
Internal medicine largely revolves around inpatient care (those admitted in a hospital), though they do see some patients in clinics too, while family medicine centers around outpatient clinics where minor interventional procedures such as joint injections and abscess draining can be performed immediately.
Family practitioners often see their patients regularly, following their journey from infancy to old age. It is common for the same family doctor to offer services to multiple generations of the same family, allowing them to form genetic links of problems.
Such an engagement establishes trust between the doctor and patient. Additionally, complete access to patient’s medical records streamlines the process and allows for quicker diagnosis.
Even though both family medicine and internal medicine doctors go through extensive training, they are prepared according to their respective fields.
What are the differences between the two?
As internal medicine has a more rigorous call schedule attending to patients admitted to the hospital, they delve into the complexities of a wide range of adult medical conditions, particularly those that affect organs and organ systems. Their training does not cater to a pediatric population (if that is something you are interested in, look into a family doctor), but it does explore various internal medicine subspecialties such as critical care, rheumatology, and pulmonology.
On the other hand, family practitioners have a broader scope.
The wide spectrum of ages they serve covers a range of diseases, from minor skin conditions to critical medical issues. Their training encompasses several outpatient fields such as gynecology, pediatrics, geriatrics, urology, and maternal health among several other fields.
Only one year of their training is restricted to inpatient care and the remaining duration is spent in outpatient clinics, with a focus on wellness-centered care.
Family medicine programs emphasize the physician’s responsibility towards its community and its patients, whereas a rigorous internal medicine program prepares the physicians for their fellowship instead.
What services do they offer?
In the family medicine vs internal medicine discussion, it is important to understand that doctors who practice the former provide a range of healthcare services in addition to treating the patient for what they came in for (usually an injury or an infection). Once a relationship is established, this includes health screenings, mental health support referrals, prescription management, lifestyle counseling, fertility testing, and vaccinations among various other tasks. As mentioned above, they may perform minor surgical procedures such as freezing a wart too.
This lifestyle counseling can also translate into preventive care (to be discussed below). For example, they may encourage you to give up smoking or seek therapy if they feel the issue could progress into something undesirable.
The best thing about family doctors is that their recommendations are personalized. Since they know your needs, they likely recommend a specialist who best suits your needs and comfort level if such a situation were to arise. If they are trying to get you to work out, they would recommend exercises that match your fitness levels and ability.
On the other hand, internists deal with more complex cases. While they are also trained to do what a family doctor may do (management of chronic conditions, and mild problems) but in the adult population, they tend to deal with admitted patients where multiple problems may afflict the patient. Compared to family medicine doctors who have a broader scope, internists have a more in-depth understanding of adult medical issues.
Like a family doctor, they may also counsel you and provide preventive care such as prostrate exams but their expertise lies in diagnosis, treatment, and referrals, the latter of which could also be internists who have chosen to specialize in something.
Family medicine doctor vs Internal medicine doctor: When should you seek their services?
When comparing family medicine vs internal medicine, internists deal with more complex cases. A large aspect of their job is to analyze the patient’s situation, investigating clues, and eventually solving the puzzle of the issue.
If the disease falls under the scope of their responsibility, they work towards solving it but in a hospital, it is fairly normal to refer the patient to a specialist. For example, an internist may diagnose an issue with your pancreas and pass you on to an endocrinologist.
If you think your issue is specific to a certain organ system, for instance, you know it has to do with your lungs, it might be best you choose an internist who has specialized in pulmonology rather than going to a family practitioner.
On the contrary, family medicine adopts a more holistic approach to healthcare, both in terms of its inclusivity and community-like experience but also in terms of health and wellness. Besides diagnosis and treatment of common medical conditions, its central theme is preventive care, identifying health risks, and recommending lifestyle changes that could improve quality of life further down the road.
In this family medicine vs internal medicine contrast, the former also has a heavy focus on the management of chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Visiting a family medicine doctor and an internal medicine doctor
Visiting a primary care physician is a preventative measure rather than a treatment. You may not necessarily be sick to require the services of a primary care physician, especially a family doctor.
It’s a proactive measure rather than a reactive one that ensures your health stays optimal. Regular health screenings may detect something before it develops into something complex and way more expensive to treat.
It will help you control the risks and get hold of the situation. For example, the regular screenings at your doctor show that your blood sugar is fluctuating. You can then adapt their recommendations to normalize it before something like diabetes develops.
Preventative care will only increase the quality and quantity of your life.
The bottom line
Primary care physicians, especially those practicing family medicine and internal, are the first line of entry for patients into the system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, more than 50% of doctor visits are made to primary care physicians.
Family medicine and internal medicine are both extremely important pillars of healthcare. Ask yourself questions like the severity of the issue, the services you require, and the length of relationship which you wish to establish and it should be easier to navigate whether you should go to a family medicine vs an internal medicine doctor.