Most medical specialists focus on a particular part of the body or a specific type of disease. Physicians who specialize in family medicine provide comprehensive care to patients of all ages with all sorts of conditions.
When someone has a non-emergency health concern, they often see a family physician first. Because they focus on the “whole patient” and provide treatment over long time periods, family physicians are uniquely suited to providing preventive care and managing chronic and complex conditions. They also screen for early signs of serious conditions, such as cancer.
Many patients develop long-standing relationships with their family physician, and come to think of him or her as “my doctor.” Over time, the family physician comes to know a great deal about the patient’s health history and medical needs. This helps in preventing health problems and reducing health risks, which are key elements of family medicine.
In many areas, the local family physician may follow an individual from infancy through adulthood. He or she may also treat other family members, and have access to medical histories going back a generation or more. This provides insight into individual health risks and enables the physician to better help patients get and stay healthy.
The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that “family medicine is an extremely satisfying career and an ideal specialty choice for students who like getting to know their patients as much as they like getting to know their patients’ diagnoses.”
Family physicians are often the first to learn about new symptoms and the first to diagnose emerging conditions.
Family physicians care for patients in many different environments, including the home and areas that are underserved by other medical providers. Research shows that people who have access to primary health care have better health outcomes than those who do not. But the U.S. government estimates that because of physician shortages, 20% of the people in the United States have no or inadequate access to primary care. This includes rural areas and areas of socioeconomic deprivation.
Family physicians help fill this gap. In fact, nearly a quarter of family physicians practice in rural areas or treat uninsured patients, especially children and families receiving public assistance. Approximately one in four of all office visits are made to family physicians. That is 214 million office visits each year– nearly 74 million more than the next largest medical specialty.
The case for maintaining an adequate family physician workforce is strong. Studies reveal that:
Most family physicians see patients in a medical office, although they also may provide care in hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, urgent care centers, emergency departments and schools.
The medical office runs like a small business, with front office staff (often one or more trained medical assistants) and someone to manage billing. Although office-based practices are common, the specialty of family medicine uniquely prepares physicians to work in rural, wilderness and international situations.
Family medicine is a specialty characterized by a high level of professional satisfaction, personal balance between career and home, and a comfortable lifestyle. While practice arrangements, to a large extent, determine work hours, schedule and family time, flexible practice models offer family physicians a wide range of lifestyle options. Medical Economics magazine found that the median number of hours worked per week by family physicians was 51.
Salary Range and Outlook
There is high demand for primary care doctors in almost every part of the country. Merritt Hawkins reported that family medicine was the highest recruited specialty in 2014-15 – the ninth consecutive year it has taken the top spot.
While income typically varies by region, years in practice and type of practice, family physicians earn an average of $195,000 annually. Family physicians can earn just as much money practicing in rural areas, where their income also goes farther due to the lower cost of living. Salaries for family physicians are expected to continue to rise as practitioners implement new care models that reduce expenses and improve efficiency.
About Family Medicine
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The American Academy of Family Physicians has reviewed this profile.
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Family physicians get an undergraduate degree and then continue to four years of medical school. After completing medical school, they do three years of residency training to compile knowledge in medical diagnosis, clinical practice and behavioral skills essential to building rapport with patients.
Because the family physician is the first point of contact for most people entering the health care system, he or she must be able to quickly assess physical data and communicate with patients to gather the information required to make an accurate diagnosis.
Physicians can choose from more than 470 family medicine residency programs across the country, including many located in small communities. They follow the same group of patients throughout their residency, building the same continuity of care expected in practice.
In residency and over their careers, family physicians master many procedures, including outpatient and hospital-based procedures. They gain specific knowledge in caring for infants, children and adolescents, and may pursue additional training to better serve patients with special needs, such as athletes, people with chronic disease and the elderly.
There are also an unlimited number of fellowships that family physicians can obtain after residency, including sports medicine, obstetrics, geriatric medicine, adolescent medicine, preventive medicine, faculty development and public health.
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Last updated: February 5, 2016
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