Career guide: Family physician

  • Family physicians treat patients of all ages.
    Family physicians treat patients of all ages.

    Career guide: Family physician

    If you're interested in pursuing a career in medicine you've likely given some thought to the area of practice you want to specialize in upon graduation from medical school. There are many options – internal medicine, cardiology, general surgery, to name just a select few. One particularly rewarding option is to enter the field of family medicine. Professionals working as family physicians are qualified to treat patients of all ages, from small children to the elderly, and take a general approach to medicine, treating conditions affecting all parts of the body.

    Are you interested in pursuing a career as a family physician? Read on to learn more about this important career path:

    What do family physicians do?
    As explained, family physicians treat all patients, no matter their age or gender. This means they are able to recognize conditions and illnesses that affect every part of the body, making diagnoses and prescribing medications or other courses of treatment, an article from The American Academy of Family Physicians explained. Furthermore, as outlined by WR Phillips, writing in an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, family physicians place an emphasis on preventative health care, which essentially refers to strategies that can be implemented to keep patients healthy. Examples of preventative health tactics include teaching patients about the importance of good nutrition, encouraging regular cancer screenings for older adults, promoting seasonal flu shots and more.

    Many family physicians will quite literally treat entire families, and will become a family's go-to primary care provider. An article from Piedmont Healthcare included a quote from a primary care physician, Dr. Saju Mathew, who elaborated on his role.

    "A family physician like myself, we see adults and kids, plus we do a lot of women's health," he explained. "A lot of family physicians see the entire family and you kind of grow with the whole family."

    Given that family physicians are able to treat all patients, they receive a broader medical education than professionals in some other specialties. As detailed by the American College of Physicians, family doctors are educated in areas of medicine that internal physicians are not, notably pediatric care. Internal physicians do not receive education in this area because they focus their medical care exclusively on adults, and as such are educated more comprehensively in medical concerns that typically affect grown-ups. 

    The American Academy of Family Physicians detailed some of the many areas in which family physicians are educated. Examples include emergency medicine, ear, nose and throat care, women's health, mental health care and the treatment of a whole host of chronic conditions, including asthma and diabetes. 

    "Family physicians are able to maintain more conventional schedules than hospital doctors or surgeons."

    Where can family physicians be found?
    These professionals are able to work in an array of areas, from hospitals to clinics, but are typically found in smaller private practices or clinics, Gap Medics reported. For this reason, family physicians are able to maintain more conventional schedules than hospital doctors or surgeons. Indeed, many family physicians will work during standard business hours on weekdays. Some providers will open their clinics on the weekends to accommodate more patients, although this is not a widespread practice.

    The source elaborated that physicians tend to work at the clinic most days, but that it is not uncommon for these providers to make house calls, or visit patients in the hospital or in other care facilities – nursing homes, for example. The number of patients a family physician will treat each day will obviously vary, with Gap Medics suggesting that seeing 20 patients a day is typical.

    How to succeed as a family physician
    As explained by journalist Alice Stuart, writing for the Houston Chronicle, some of the skills needed to succeed in this area of medicine are as follows:

    • The ability to present complex medical information in a concise and easy to understand way to patients. 
    • Proficiency with general communication.
    • The ability to establish strong relationships with patients, displaying compassion and kindness at all times. In other words, an impeccable bedside manner.

    Furthermore, it is imperative that family physicians are able to stay organized and focused with a strong attention to detail. Working in this area of medicine necessitates the ability to wear many hats when it comes to recognizing and diagnosing vastly divergent medical complaints. For example, a family physician may treat a child with an ear infection in the morning, and then a young woman with abnormal cervical bleeding in the afternoon.

    What qualifications are needed?
    To practice in any area of medicine as a physician or surgeon attending medical school is mandatory, Stuart explained. To qualify for entry into medical school candidates must have a four-year bachelor's degree with exceptional grades. Indeed, the source noted that admission to medical school can be difficult, with high rates of competition and spaces given to the most accomplished students.

    After completion of medical school, graduates embark on a period of hands-on training within a medical facility, which lasts a minimum of three years, but often takes longer. This is known as a residency period. The next step, according to the Houston Chronicle, is to become certified as a family physician by taking exams through the American Board of Family Medicine. The source noted that many family physicians also opt to study for further certification in areas of medicine such as geriatric care or adolescent medicine.

    Salary levels
    Much like other medical professionals, family physicians are compensated well. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median nationwide salary for family and general practitioners, as of May 2016, is $200,810 a year. That translates to an hourly wage of close to $100. Of course, salaries higher than this are by no means uncommon.

    Job outlook
    The BLS explained that the decade beginning in 2014 and concluding in 2024 is predicted to witness growth in employment for family physicians of around 14 percent. Gap Medics explained that demand for family physicians is consistently high nationwide, especially in rural areas and other underserved communities.

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