At one time all doctors were general practitioners; they performed surgeries, treated infections, delivered babies and cared for people of all ages from birth to death. Medical specialization began during the late 1800s and by World War II, specialization increased rapidly, to the point that patients began to complain about fragmentation of medical care and the lack of a personal physician, cites the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other terms associated with the general practice of medicine are family medicine, family practice and primary care.
Family medicine or general practice is actually a specialty, which incorporates both the knowledge and skill of other medical specialties and a unique process in which the physician-patient relationship is central to the delivery of care. Patient and physician form a bond that must be developed and nurtured through multiple contacts over the years. A family physician's care is personal and comprehensive, grounded in the knowledge of the patient's relationships in the family and community. Family medicine emphasizes disease prevention and health promotion.
Like all physicians, practitioners of family medicine assess patients, diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, order lab and other diagnostic tests and prescribe medications. In addition, family physicians may perform well-child check-ups, gynecological care, immunizations and prostate checks. Some family physicians deliver babies and provide newborn care; others perform minor surgeries or assist at major surgeries on their patients. A family doctor’s practice may vary according to locale -- for example, rural physicians in small towns may be more likely to deliver babies than an inner-city doctor.
Coordination of health care is one of a general practitioner's roles. The family physician is uniquely positioned to ensure that even when a patient is referred to a specialist for care, the relevant findings and treatments are incorporated into the records maintained by the family doctor. This helps to prevent such problems as a failure to continue routine medications or a limited focus on disease treatment that prevents attention to other medical problems. It is the family physician who ensures a patient being treated for cancer or rheumatoid arthritis still gets an annual physical and is kept up to date on his immunizations.
Patient advocacy is another important role of the family doctor. A patient who is being seen by several specialists may need someone who can advise her on the need for certain kinds of care or help deal with insurance companies or employers. It may be the family physician who helps a family make the difficult decision to take a grandfather off life support or assists parents to deal with a handicapped child. For these services, a general practitioner earned an average annual salary of $177,330 in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.