Primary Care

Family Medicine or Internal Medicine?

What's the difference between a family medicine doctor and an internal medicine doctor? Which is the right physician for you?

Aug. 14, 2020 4   min read

Choosing a Primary Care Physician

When you're searching for a new primary care physician (PCP), you want comprehensive, thorough care from a provider you trust. Internal medicine doctors (internists) and family medicine doctors (family doctors) both fall under the umbrella of primary care. Understanding the differences between internal medicine and family medicine will make it easier for you to choose your ideal provider.

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Internal medicine doctors and family medicine doctors have a common goal: helping you improve your health. Let’s explore both so you can find the right physician for you.

Internal Medicine Doctors

Internal medicine doctors, often called internists, primarily provide care for adults, but not for children. They specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease and see patients for every health condition, from a physical or a sinus infection to a broken bone, and anything in between. Internists help with preventive care and the treatment of complex adult diseases, and they are the go-to provider to help connect and coordinate the many subspecialties a patient might need. 

Patients They See

Internal medicine doctors see adults, patients ages 18 and up. Some internists see children, but only if they specialize in both internal medicine and pediatric medicine.


Internists complete a three-year residency program after medical school before they begin practicing internal medicine. Their residencies are typically hospital-based working as a physician, with some outpatient training. This three years of experience in a hospital provides ample training in emergency medicine, critical care, critical cardiac patient management, and gives internists experience in treating the sickest in the population. 

While required training centers on common adult medical conditions, it also includes comprehensive experience in a wide variety of subspecialties, such as: 

  • endocrinology
  • rheumatology
  • infectious diseases
  • neurology
  • psychiatry
  • dermatology
  • ophthalmology
  • office gynecology
  • otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat)
  • non-operative orthopedics
  • palliative medicine
  • sleep medicine
  • geriatrics
  • rehabilitation medicine

Internists are trained on a significant number of subspecialties which ensures their deep understanding of the most complex adult conditions. 


Internists are excellent primary care providers for adult patients, with the added benefit of special training to deal with the complexities of patients who might have multiple or uncontrolled medical problems. Their training enables them to effectively interact with their subspecialty colleagues in co-managing complex patients and situations, such as those with transplants, cancer, or autoimmune disease and easily managing the transitions from outpatient to inpatient settings. They’re also very helpful for people struggling with diagnostic dilemmas.

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Family Medicine Doctors

Family medicine doctors are often called family practitioners. While they see and care for patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly and everyone in between, you do not need to have a family to see a family medicine doctor. They provide comprehensive, coordinated care that often focuses on preventive care. Family medicine doctors also address issues that come up during annual checkups and perform some minor procedures.

Patients They See

Family practitioners cover pediatrics, adolescent medicine, adult medicine, and geriatrics. They can care for your entire family, and often see the same patients through every stage of their lives, as well as their families. But you do not need to have a family to see them. 


Family medicine doctors complete a three-year residency program after medical school that integrates community medicine, inpatient, and outpatient care. While family practice residents take calls in the hospital as they rotate, most of their training during their second and third years are in the outpatient setting. This results in less hospital training and more outpatient training than internists, which helps them to diagnose and treat an entire spectrum of medical issues for patients of all ages.

Family medicine residencies can include training in a variety of specialties, such as:

  • emergency medicine
  • internal medicine
  • obstetrics and gynecology
  • pediatric medicine
  • psychiatry, and more

Many family medicine providers achieve additional fellowships in obstetrics, palliative care, and sports medicine to round out their expertise.


Seeing a family in its entirety allows family practitioners to see how relationships affect patient health. It also gives them the opportunity to help people through exciting new phases in their lives. Their emphasis on continuity of care, health maintenance, and disease prevention allows family doctors to function as primary care physicians for adults as part of a family unit depending on individual medical need.

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Which is Right for You?

The great thing about both of these types of doctors is you don't need a family to see a family medicine doctor or have internal issues to see an internal medicine doctor. Internists see patients 18 years and older, while family practitioners can see patients of any age. No matter which type you go with for your primary care physician, it’s important that you choose a doctor you’re comfortable with.

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