What Family Medicine Is and How to Become a Family Doctor

One of the advantages of being a family medicine practitioner is that, unlike other doctors, physicians in this field aren’t limited to treating a particular health condition or a specific type of patient.

“You do better at the family reunions,” jokes Dr. James Pacala, head of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “You get to family reunions, and every family member comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing.’ And they show you a rash, or they describe something, or they show you where their kid is, and they want you to look at their kid.”

Pacala says that he and his wife, who are both family doctors, had an interesting experience while traveling on a train in Peru alongside many other physicians, most of whom were subspecialists, such as head and neck surgeons and eye surgeons. Pacala and his wife were the only two doctors who volunteered to assist a woman who appeared to be about to give birth. Although she did not end up giving birth then, Pacala says he and his wife could have handled the issue if she had since they both have significant obstetrics training.

[See: Best Family Medicine Programs.]

“Being a family doctor bails you out and saves you face at family reunions and public situations when somebody asks, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?'” Pacala says.

What Family Medicine Is and How It Fits Into the Medical Field

Typically, an aspiring physician will have to choose a narrow niche, or specialty, within the field of medicine.

Some doctors focus on addressing problems within a particular organ such as the eye, heart or brain while others concentrate on treating a particular kind of patient such as children, adults or seniors. Many doctors cater to either men or women while others are experts on performing a particular kind of procedure, such as hand surgery. Some physicians concentrate on treating a particular population, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer — or LGBTQ — individuals while others address a particular illness, such as cancer or diabetes.

[Read: Primary Care vs. Research: Which Med School Is Right for You?]

What makes family medicine distinct from other medical specialties is that a doctor within this field can serve everyone in some way. As a primary care provider who treats young, middle-age and elderly patients of either gender, a family doctor could hypothetically assist every individual in a family. He or she is trained to recognize the symptoms of a wide array of ailments ranging from infections to traumatic injuries.

This kind of physician is exceptionally versatile, able to deliver a baby, administer an injection or set a broken bone, though he or she may choose to refer patients who need procedures to doctors who specialize in performing them. Family medicine doctors also can counsel patients, diagnose disease and provide hands-on treatment.

What Family Doctors Do and How Much They Earn

“Family medicine is the only singular medical specialty which is tasked with taking care of all people at all ages,” says Dr. Andrew Carroll, the CEO and medical director of Atembis LLC, an Arizona-based medical practice. “We provide prenatal care. We deliver babies. We treat infants, toddlers and adolescents. We treat adults, seniors (and do) geriatrics. We do end-of-life care, hospice care, we do do surgeries (and) we assist in surgeries.”

“We are, in a lot of ways, the Swiss Army knife of all specialties, and family medicine is the only specialty whose primary goal is to create a primary care physician,” says Carroll, who sits on the board of directors for the American Academy of Family Physicians. “We have some folks subspecialize, but really the crux of what we do is primary care and longitudinal medicine for all ages.”

Family doctors often say that they can care for the same person throughout that person’s lifespan, taking him or her from cradle to grave.

Dr. Greg Thomas, a family medicine physician with the McPherson Center for Health in Kansas, notes that family doctors are responsible not only for treating patients but also for making referrals to subspecialist physicians when appropriate. “We train to take care of 90% of what comes in the door and help the patient through the system for the other 10%, quarterbacking their care,” Thomas wrote in an email. “We are the patient’s advocate to make sure the best care is delivered wherever it’s received.”

[READ: Types of Primary Care Doctors.]

According to Medscape’s 2020 family medicine physician compensation report, doctors within this specialty have some of the lowest salaries among all doctors, with median annual earnings of $234,000.

Pacala says that aspiring physicians who are interested in making more money should choose a more lucrative specialty than family medicine, which is a field that tends to be a labor of love as opposed to a mercenary pursuit.

“The people I know in family medicine did not go into medicine to make money,” he says. “They went into medicine to help people and to answer a more altruistic calling.”

Nevertheless, he observes that a salary exceeding $200,000 is not too shabby, considering that it vastly exceeds the earnings of most people.

“We can lead very, very comfortable lives and are very, very fortunate,” he says, adding that family medicine physicians tend to report feeling especially fulfilled by their jobs when they are surveyed about job satisfaction.

Dr. Saint Anthony Amofah — the chief medical officer at Community Health of South Florida, Inc. — suggests that family medicine physicians can boost their standard of living if they receive performance bonuses and generous benefits.

How to Figure Out if Family Medicine Is Right for You

Empathy is a vital characteristic for aspiring family doctors, Amofah suggests, noting that a person needs to be “warm” to forge strong, long-term relationships with patients — a core component of a family doctor’s job.

Someone who is well-suited to family medicine will like the idea of treating patients from all walks and stages of life, and will be interested in multiple aspects of medicine, Amofah says. One appealing aspect of family medicine, he suggests, is that it tends to allow for more work-life balance than other medical fields. He adds that this aspect of family medicine may make it ideal for some people.

Experts note that family medicine tends to emphasize preventive medicine and outpatient care as opposed to emergency medicine and inpatient care. That means family doctors tend to tackle fewer life-or-death situations than other kinds of doctors, so someone with a strong preference for or against providing crisis care should be aware that it is rare for a family doctor to do that.

The breadth and diversity of family medicine is part of what makes the field fun and exciting, says Pacala, but he cautions that individuals who tend to be single-minded and obsessive may prefer a field that is less varied and more specific. The huge scope of family medicine can feel intimidating for medical students who wonder how they could possibly possess all the skills needed for this field, Pacala says, but he argues that this worry is based on a misconception about what a family doctor does.

“You don’t have to be smarter than any other doctor,” he suggests. “The volume of what you have to know isn’t any greater … What you need to know is the 80-85% of complaints that come across your practice and then you have to have the self-awareness to recognize the 15% or so of (problems) that are confronting you that you need to steer to a colleague.”

Steps to Becoming a Family Doctor

Shadowing a family physician is the best way to figure out whether that profession is one you would enjoy, Amofah says.

Most family medicine physicians possess seven years of medical training, including four years spent in medical school and three years spent in a family medicine residency, though some may devote an extra year or two in a fellowship to master a specific skill set such as geriatrics, women’s health, sports medicine or obstetrics. Aspiring family doctors also need to pass board exams in the field of family medicine.

There are some medical schools whose graduates frequently go onto family medicine residencies, and this tends to be the case at medical schoo ls focused on primary care. It is also the case at some international medical schools, says Carroll, who earned his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine, a Caribbean medical school.

Once someone becomes a family doctor, the need for hard work isn’t over. Dr. Brynna Connor, a family medicine physician who is also a healthcare ambassador for NorthWestPharmacy.com, explains that family doctors must put patients at ease, “establish rapport quickly” and listen carefully.

“Persistence is incredibly key as we have to work through many different problems and ‘workups’ in diagnosing a problem so that we can best treat our patients before sending them on to a specialist,” she wrote in an email.

It’s uncertain whether the coronavirus pandemic will either encourage or discourage future doctors from concentrating on family medicine, according to family medicine physicians. While some aspiring physicians may want to focus on a field that is extremely relevant to treating coronavirus patients such as infectious disease medicine, respiratory medicine or emergency medicine, others might not want to be on the front lines of a crisis.

Experts note that family medicine doctors have been involved in fighting coronavirus.

“As we are currently in a pandemic the need for family doctors is that much more important,” says Dr. Peter Carrazzone, a family medicine physician and managing partner and president of Vanguard Medical Group in New Jersey, wrote in an email. “Patients need a trusted source to discuss the fluctuating and at times contradictory information they hear in the news about COVID-19. They need someone to test them and treat them if they get the disease as so many have.”

During this time of hardship, medical patients need empathetic physicians to understand their anxieties and their grief, says Carrazone, a past president of the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians. “Family Medicine does all this,” he wrote. “It is a specialty desperately needed during this pandemic.”

“Family Medicine is what I grew up thinking that a physician does,” he adds. “The entire person. Emotional and physical. The primary doctor. It is such a rewarding career for the right person. It certainly has been rewarding for me.”

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.

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What Family Medicine Is and How to Become a Family Doctor originally appeared on usnews.com

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