There's an odd division at play within the medical profession. Large hospitals and clinics bristle with specialists and surgeons of every stripe, each with a profound expertise in one relatively narrow area of health care. In contrast, primary-care physicians offering broad, general medical knowledge are in short supply. These family doctors, or general practitioners as they're sometimes called, are a vital part of the health-care industry.
General Practice vs. Family Practice
In broad terms, there are two kinds of physicians. One kind specializes in treating a specific type of illness, a specific type of patient, or a specific part of the body. Others are generalists, who provide primary care for patients with a broad range of conditions. These doctors were traditionally called "general practitioners," as opposed to specialists, and that term is still common in many countries. In the United States, when the current system of recognized medical specialties was created in the late 1960s, the traditional field of general practice became the new specialty of family medicine.
If you're thinking about a career in family medicine you'll need a nimble brain, because family doctors have the profession's broadest scope of practice. You'd need to keep up on developments in internal medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, geriatrics, psychology and often obstetrics, so you can accurately diagnose your patients' problems. You'll treat them for all their routine health problems, advise them on wellness and lifestyle changes, and monitor any long-term concerns such as blood pressure or obesity. When a more serious medical problem occurs, you'll usually refer your patients to a surgeon or specialist, then provide follow-up care afterwards.
The Big Picture
One of the most important things about family medicine is that you get the "big picture" of your patient's life. You're treating a person, not a specific illness. Few family doctors can spend as much time with patients as they'd like, but over time you'll come to know your patients' history, personality and individual quirks. You'll also get a sense of their family dynamic, which can affect both their health and your treatment options. For example, an adolescent's sudden weight gain might result from depression rather than a medical or lifestyle issue. If you're familiar with the family situation, you have a better likelihood of finding that real, underlying reason.
Family doctors begin their careers like other doctors, with a four-year premedical degree and then four years in medical or osteopathic college. At graduation, you'll need to find a spot in a family medicine residency program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. During the three-year residency you'll treat patients under the guidance of more experienced practitioners, learning the diagnostic and interpersonal skills you need to practice effectively. After the residency, most doctors take and pass a certification exam from the Board of Family Medicine, becoming board-certified family physicians.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Physicians and Surgeons
- American Board of Family Medicine: What Is Family Medicine?
- American Board of Family Medicine: History of the Specialty
- Family Doctor.org: What Is a Family Doctor
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: Family Medicine
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.