Choosing a doctor is hardly easy. If you suspect you have high blood pressure, for instance, should you go to the doctor you’ve been seeing for years, or visit a specialist? Perhaps you don’t even know the background of your doctor because they’ve been your family doctor since childhood.
Regardless, you need to know what kind of medical professional you’re seeing, as each type of doctor undergoes unique schooling and training. Here is the background that would qualify someone as an internist.
The Definition of Internal Medicine
At the most basic level, internal medicine is the practice of providing medical treatment to adults based on sound scientific principles. Despite popular misconceptions, “internal” doesn’t refer to the internal organs. Someone who practices internal medicine may treat the skin just as well as they treat the spleen.
Does that mean you’re seeing an internist right now? Not necessarily. The more general term for a regular doctor is a primary care physician (PCP), which could be either an internist or a family doctor.
The Difference Between an Internist and a Family Doctor
So, how can you tell if you’re seeing an internist or a family doctor? One of the biggest differentiators is the scope of their practice:
• Internist – only treats adults
• Family doctor – treats adults and children, often the provider for everyone in the family
Knowing this, it may still be difficult to tell them apart, as approximately 85 to 90 percent of a family doctor’s patients are adults.
The Founding of Internal Medicine
Internal medicine and family medicine have two distinct and unrelated beginnings.
Sir William Osler, who lived from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, is considered the father of modern internal medicine. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he focused on the internal causes of illness, such as physiology, bacteriology and pathology, rather than relying on easily misinterpreted external symptoms and ineffective traditional treatments. He also stressed good bedside manner and the importance of involving patients in their care.
Family medicine wasn’t commonly practiced until the 1960s. It was a reactionary form of care that prioritized attention from a single doctor over the fracturing of medical care among many specialists. In this way, family medicine provided much-needed consistency for the family unit and allowed doctors to build long-term relationships with their patients.
Focus of Studies
In addition to having dissimilar origins, internal and family medicine require different education and training. All internists must commit at least three years of their seven-plus years of schooling to the treatment of diseases in adults. This gives them a unique depth of knowledge in adult body systems that most family doctors do not have. After schooling, they gain experience in:
• Outpatient continuity clinics
• Intensive/critical care settings
• Consult services
• Inpatient/outpatient subspecialty services
Family doctors also undergo three years of schooling, but they cover pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and surgery in addition to general adult medicine. This is meant to prepare them for the full range of services a family may need to maintain their health. Family doctors are also less likely to complete a fellowship (subspecialty training).
All in all, internists are better suited to treating the many ailments of the human body, as they are more well-versed in the specialties of adult medicine, whereas family doctors are better suited to treating the whole family. Some physicians, commonly referred to as “med-peds,” choose to pursue a combined background in internal and family medicine.
Types of Internists
After undergoing schooling and training, an internist has several career paths to choose from:
• General internist – serves as a PCP, works with patients in ambulatory settings over the long term
• Hospitalist – works with patients in the hospital setting
• Subspecialist – dedicates themselves to a subspecialty like cardiology or allergy medicine
Many internists shift roles over the course of their career. Some even end up in academic, research or administrative positions.
Our Team of Doctors at St. Hope Foundation
At St. Hope Foundation, our providers come from a variety of medical backgrounds. Our family doctors offer pediatric services to families in Texas looking for well-child visits, immunizations, prenatal consultations and more. Adults can benefit from seeing one of our qualified internists for general care or specialty care for diabetes, HIV or other chronic conditions.
Call us at 713.778.1300 to schedule your appointment today.