“Our goal is to help each person live their healthiest life possible,” says Castle Connolly Top Doctor Rachel Franklin, MD, a professor and medical director with the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Oklahoma City. If you’re sick, a family medicine physician will work to get you better through goal-directed care.
Family medicine physicians may treat your cold, help you manage chronic illnesses, work with you to prevent health problems, and also provide obstetrics and gynecology care (OB/GYN).
Family medicine physicians tend to also be passionate about social justice issues. Since the formation of the specialty in 1969, family medicine has focused on medical care for people of all socioeconomic categories, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). In fact, many family medicine physicians work in underserved rural and urban areas where there is not a lot of access to primary care.
According to the AAFP, family physicians conduct approximately one in five office visits — that’s 192 million visits annually or 48 percent more than the next most visited medical specialty.
If you are receiving care from health care professionals in different specialties, you can think of your family medicine doctor as your doctor, Dr. Franklin says. She gives the example of an older female patient who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Because of this diagnosis, the patient had to see several specialists, including an oncologist and a cardiologist. The patient returned to Dr. Franklin for advice and perspective because she recognized that Dr. Franklin was her personal doctor.
“I can answer questions all day about what supplements to take or what exercises to do, but I can also guide you through a very complex health system that can be quite frightening and overwhelming,” she says.
Differences Between Family Medicine and Internal Medicine
Family medicine and internal medicine are commonly confused. Although both specialties cover a wide range of health issues and both types of physicians are primary care doctors, family medicine is more comprehensive because its physicians can see both children and adults. Family medicine physicians can and often do have more training in gynecologic care.
Internal medicine physicians typically receive training related to various “-ology” specialties, such as gastroenterology, endocrinology, and rheumatology. Some doctors will study internal medicine and then go on to subspecialize in one of the “-ology” specialties.
Both family medicine and internal medicine physicians will work in outpatient settings. Internal medicine physicians are more likely to also work in hospitals.
Additionally, a family medicine and a general practitioner are not the same. A general practitioner is licensed to provide care but has not completed residency after medical school. Family medicine physicians must complete residency and pass special board certification exams.
I can answer questions all day about what supplements to take or what exercises to do, but I can also guide you through a very complex health system that can be quite frightening and overwhelming.
Castle Connolly Top Doctor Rachel Franklin, MD,
Family medicine physicians are medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DOs). After medical school, they complete a residency in family medicine. During residency, family medicine physicians are trained in community medicine, internal medicine, neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, and psychiatry. Other areas in which family medicine physicians receive training include the following, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians:
• Emergency medicine
• Otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat)
Subspecialty Training for Family Medicine Physicians
After completing residency, some family medicine physicians may complete a fellowship to receive special training to become a subspecialist in one of the following areas:
• Adolescent medicine: training in the physical, psychological, and social concerns and the health care problems of adolescents.
• Geriatric medicine: training in the care of elderly patients, with special knowledge of the aging process.
• Hospice and palliative medicine: training in the care of patients with life-limiting illnesses.
• Pain medicine: care for patients with acute pain, cancer pain, or chronic pain.
• Sleep medicine: care for conditions that can affect sleep or that occur during sleep.
• Sports medicine: providing diagnosis and treatment of injuries associated with sports or exercise.
The Family Medicine/Body Connection
Family medicine physicians treat the whole body. They also emphasize treating patients as a whole rather than just focusing on the disease process or a specific organ of the body.
Treating a Broad Range of Diseases and Conditions
Castle Connolly Top Doctors family physicians treat a broad range of diseases and conditions, whether at the emergency department (ED), urgent care, an urgent family medicine appointment, or a non-urgent family medicine appointment. The type of care you need also will depend on your pain severity and your symptoms, as well as your overall health. For example, if you suspect you have high blood sugar and want to be tested for diabetes, you would set up a non-urgent appointment. However, if you already have diabetes and experience something called diabetic ketoacidosis, you should go the emergency department.
For many diseases and conditions on the list below, a family medicine physician may be the first person you see to diagnose a problem. However, he or she may refer you to a specialist for further care for more complex problems.
Additionally, a person with certain chronic conditions, such as heart problems or asthma, may need to be seen more quickly for some health problems than someone with no chronic conditions.
Go to the Emergency Department
• Abdominal pain, severe and sudden, accompanied by blood in the stool
• Allergic reaction, severe
• Broken bone
• Burn, severe
• Chest pain and shortness of breath
• Congestive heart failure
• Fever and extreme fatigue
• Headache, intense and sudden
• Heart attack
• Kidney infection
• Lack of bowel control, sudden
• Numbness that does not go away
• Prostatitis, acute bacterial
• Shortness of breath
• Vomiting with blood
Go to Urgent Care or See a Family Medicine Physician for an Urgent Appointment
• Blood in your stool or urine
• Cough, severe
• Domestic violence
• Ear infections
• Prostatitis, chronic
• Senior abuse
• Sexually transmitted disease
• Sinus infection
• Sports injuries
• Sore throat
• Stomach flu (gastroenteritis)
• Strep throat
See a Family Medicine Doctor for a Non-urgent Appointment
• Abdominal pain, mild
• Allergy injections
• Alzheimer’s disease
• Autism spectrum disorders
• Back pain
• Benign skin lesions
• Cardiovascular disease
• Chronic fatigue syndrome
• Chronic illness
• Crohn’s disease
• Drainage of abscesses
• Family planning
• Flu shots
• Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
• Geriatric care
• Hearing disorders
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Intrauterine device (IUD) insertion and removal
• Irritable bowel syndrome
• Joint injections
• Kidney disease
• Lyme disease
• Medication management
• Menstrual disorders
• Migraines, chronic
• Muscle spasms
• Muscle sprains
• Neck pain
• Newborn care
• Norplant placement and removal
• OB/GYN exams
• Obstetrics care
• Occupational physical
• Pain management
• Palliative care
• Pelvic inflammatory disorder
• Peptic ulcer disease
• Preventive care
• Psychosomatic disorders
• Sexual dysfunction
• Shoulder pain
• Sinusitis, chronic
• Skin infection
• Skin problems
• Sleep disorders
• Smoking cessation
• Transgender medicine
• Thyroid disorders
• Urinary tract infections
• Vision disorders
• Weight management
• Well adult assessment
• Well child assessment
• Women’s health assessment
• Wound care
Family Medicine Tests, Procedures, and Surgeries
Because family medicine covers such a wide range of health conditions, there also is a wide range of tests and procedures that family medicine doctors perform. Here are some of the more common tests, procedures, and surgeries performed within family medicine:
• Birth control insertion/implantation: Family medicine physicians can insert a type of birth control called an intrauterine device (IUD) into a woman’s uterus. Family medicine physicians also can implant Nexplanon right under the skin. This matchstick-sized implant releases hormones to help prevent pregnancy.
• Casting and splinting: Casting and splinting are performed to give protection and support to bones and joints that are broken or injured. These orthopedic devices keep the bone in place until it is better.
• Joint injection: A joint injection involves inserting a type of medicine called a steroid directly into a joint. Joint injections are done to help with swelling and pain if you have arthritis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or gout.
• Skin biopsy: A skin biopsy removes cells from your skin or part of the skin itself to test it for a medical condition. Common skin conditions or diseases that involve a biopsy include skin cancer, skin infection, and dermatitis. Sometimes, the goal of the biopsy is complete removal of a lesion, such as a skin tag.