Medicine is a complex industry. If you’re a practicing physician, there are dozens of fields you could pursue: gastroenterologists study the digestive system; otolaryngologists specialize in the ear, nose and throat health; and neurologists focus on the nervous system. If you’re not a specialist but you practice primary care, you fall into one of two categories: family medicine or internal medicine — but just what is the difference between the two? As Saju Mathew, M.D., explains, not much.
“We’re all primary care physicians, but the biggest difference is internal medicine doctors are like adult pediatricians.”
Pediatricians care for children, internal medicine physicians care for adults. Family medicine doctors do both.
“A family physician like myself,” says Dr. Mathew, “we see adults and kids, plus we do a lot of women’s health. A lot of family physicians see the entire family and you kind of grow with the whole family.”
And, in fact, that’s one of the reasons family medicine doctors are so popular. At a certain age (usually between 18 and 21, but sometimes sooner), you’ll have to leave your pediatrician to find a primary care physician. Family practice doctors eliminate that transition: your family doctor will stay with you most likely for the length of their career. This creates an understanding and a bond, as Dr. Mathew stated, that generally allows for easier and more open conversation between patient and doctor.
Family practice physicians don’t have age limits, either. This means you can join a family practice as an adult and raise your children through the same doctor.
“If you want a good adult primary care physician, you can see a family physician who is trained to take care of adults or you can see an internal medicine physician, who also takes care of adults.”
It should be noted that specializing in a certain field — even if it’s just in Pediatrics — offers more knowledge and experience; it’s why many doctors will refer you to a specialist if they’re unfamiliar with the case or condition. Family doctors have broad experience across the age groups, but may not consider some of the more unique conditions out there. For example, your family doctor may not recognize something like low testosterone (which goes untreated in 90% of men) to be the source of a problem — however, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to send you to someone who can help; ultimately, the choice is yours!