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Family Medicine

Overview

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.” (www.aafp.org, March 2008)

Family physicians:

  • Treat a wide range of medical issues
  • Coordinate care with other medical professionals
  • Care for the whole patient, including mental and emotional needs
  • Strive to build long-term relationships with their patients
  • Provide information and techniques to help patients take control of their health
  • Focus on preventing illness as well as treating it

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 has proven that people who have access to primary health care have better health outcomes than those who do not. The U.S. government estimates that 21% of Americans live in “Primary Care Health Personnel Shortage Areas,” where there are not enough physicians to meet the needs of the population. 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. Of all the primary care specialties, family physicians provide the most care, managing nearly one-fourth of all primary care visits.

The case for maintaining an adequate family physician workforce is strong. Studies reveal that:

  • Family medicine reduces health care costs and increases health care quality.
  • Family physicians are geographically distributed across the country more equitably than physicians from any other specialty.
  • Family physicians are geographically and financially more accessible to disadvantaged populations that lack access to quality health care than other primary care physicians, which in turn helps to reduce health disparities.
  • Individuals who regularly visit a family physician are more likely to receive preventive services, better management of chronic illnesses and decreased chance of premature death.

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers more information about this fast-growing career.

Working Conditions

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.

The hours can be long. Medical Economics magazine found that family physicians spend 50 to 55 hours per week caring for patients and managing their practice. They spend more time on patient-related activities than any other specialty.

Salary Range and Outlook

Because of the high demand for primary care doctors in almost every part of the country, the American Academy of Family Physicians reports that family medicine was the highest recruited specialty in 2006 and 2007.

Family physicians can earn $125,000 to $161,000 in their first year of practice, depending on region, setting and patient population. The average salary of practicing family physician is around $180,000 a year. 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 rise as much as 25% as practitioners implement new care models that reduce expenses and improve efficiency.

Academic Requirements

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 400 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.