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There are a good number of medical specialties, ranging from physicians who specialize in mental health to those who focus on research or perform surgery. Depending on your situation, the type of doctors you see can vary significantly throughout your life, and it's not unusual to only see a specialist once or twice before your health issue is resolved or cured.
Internal medicine and family medicine are two very common specialties. Family doctors and internists focus on the patient as a whole, preventing, diagnosing, and treating illnesses of all kinds. Both family doctors and internists follow a three-year residency program once they've graduated from medical school, and they learn all about caring for patients from all walks of life, with all types of health issues. It's after this three-year residency that the differences between the two specialties evolve.
Physicians who specialize in family medicine generally follow a three-year family medicine residency once they've completed their general residency. During this time, they continue to work with patients of all ages. Unlike specialists such as dermatologists, who treat conditions of the skin, or pulmonologists, who take care of your lungs, family doctors look at your entire body's systems.
The specialty grew from what many of us knew as the general practitioner. General practitioners (GPs) usually only treated adults, but as their patients grew older and had families, there was an increasing demand for GPs to treat children. This continuity of care turned out to be useful for both the physicians and their patients. Now, there are family physicians that treat seniors, their children, and their grandchildren. It's estimated that most patients seen by family physicians are adults, but as parents become more comfortable having their children cared for by a family physician rather than a pediatrician, the percentage may change.
If a patient has an illness or condition that requires a specialist, such as an orthopedic surgeon or psychiatrist, family doctors would refer them for consultations or treatment. The family doctor remains in the picture, acting as a coordinator as the specialist sends reports that either suggest care or tell the family doctor what steps the specialist is taking. Once the patient no longer needs the specialist, they return to their family doctor.
Physicians who practice internal medicine are called internists. They're trained to care for patients with both chronic and acute illnesses. Like family doctors, internists are equipped to diagnose and treat their patients for various conditions, and they also act as a coordinator should a patient require a specialist. Unlike family doctors, internists treat only adults, and they can set up practice when they complete their initial residency, although many choose to continue to learn as much as they can about the human body.
Internists can also specialize further — an internist who works solely in a hospital setting may be called a hospitalist, for example. Other internists may work in long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, helping patients regain their independence. Technically, specialists like cardiologists are also internists but with an even narrower specialty.
Regardless of which physician you choose for your care, the relationship you build with your doctor is an important one. Being open and honest with your doctor allows him or her to manage your health to the best of their ability.