Primary care practitioners serve as a vital link in the healthcare system, providing for all routine aspects of a patient’s health. They diagnose ailments, treat disease and help patients lay the foundation for lifelong health and wellness. Working mostly in outpatient settings, PCPs often provide long-term care for their patients and help them manage chronic conditions like diabetes or depression. By developing close professional relationships with patients, practitioners build detailed medical histories that serve patients over a lifetime. PCPs can be general medical practitioners or choose to specialize in a particular area. Primary care specialties include family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics.
Throughout their careers, PCPs will serve a wide range of health needs, delivering advice and care throughout a patient’s lifetime. This continuity of care is beneficial to patients whose needs change as they grow, develop and age. To meet this responsibility, PCPs seek advanced education and credentialing in order to serve patients as individuals and as members of vulnerable health populations. Beyond medical school, practitioners develop and train to gain the latest emerging healthcare perspectives and evidence-based clinical skills. Even after medical school, residency and fellowships in the primary care specialties of their choice, practitioners have many opportunities to update their skills and widen the scope of their practice.
Many primary care practitioners specialize in internal medicine. Internal medicine specialists–also known as internists–are trained to diagnose and treat the injuries, illnesses and health conditions experienced by adults. They may assist patients in preventing disease and alleviating acute ailments. Internal medicine practitioners are often the first choice among adult patients who need help managing severe and chronic diseases. Internists are qualified to treat multiple complex conditions or specialize in certain areas of medicine like urgent care or emergency care.
As healthcare continues to evolve, some internal medicine specialists are seeing their scope of practice change. In response to evolving demands, physicians can pursue education that helps them deliver services in a holistic and integrative way. More integrative care could include treating mental health to improve patient compliance or exploring emerging perspectives like evidence-based medicine. Internists handling diabetes cases, for instance, can learn the unique factors that impact disease incidence within a patient population. After medical school, internists can earn continuing education credits discovering the latest clinical interventions for patient groups that require more advanced care.
Family medicine is a medical specialty that provides ongoing and comprehensive health care to individual patients who also are members of a family. Family medicine care involves perspectives that incorporate the biological, clinical and behavioral sciences, particularly as they relate to the family unit. In family medicine, no two cases are alike.
Family medicine practitioners are seeing their practices change. There is now an emphasis on specialization and adopting evidence-based modes of care. Common family medicine subspecialties have included adolescent care, geriatric care and pain medicine. In response to calls for integrated care, primary care practitioners in family medicine are treating more mental health and substance abuse cases, sleep disorders and sports medicine concerns. PCPs can approach these specialties formally through fellowships or can make them an emphasis of their continuing education after medical school. Meeting the demands of these patient populations is a lifelong pursuit.
Internal Medicine vs. Family Medicine
To understand the scope of practice as a primary care specialist, it is useful to understand the difference between internal medicine and family medicine. Broadly speaking, internal medicine specialists may take cases that are medically complex but require targeted clinical interventions. Family medicine specialists may take more integrative approaches. The difference in cases can have a major impact on the practical, day-to-day operation of a practice. As a result, they may cause each to pursue different continuing education opportunities. The severity of cases may put higher value on urgent or emergency care for the internist. Family medicine practitioners may support their practice with more sports medicine or mental health-focused CME.
Pediatricians specialize in the care of infants, children and young adults. They must take a comprehensive approach to care, often addressing the physical, behavioral and social health needs of their young patients. PCPs specializing in pediatrics are skilled in delivering comprehensive, coordinated and continuous care until a patient reaches adulthood. Treating children is a unique challenge because they are often unable to, or fearful about, communicating their needs. Disease prevention and regenerative medicine can be key for pediatricians.
Early access to quality healthcare can impact patients across their lifespans. Pediatricians, therefore, play an important role in building a healthy foundation for patients. They not only specialize in the treatment of childhood illness but address the vast range of factors that can impact a child’s health. Screening for developmental disorders and communicating the value of vaccines are growing in importance. Pervasive and developmental disorders–like autism and childhood obesity–can be successfully managed with early intervention by pediatricians who can identify symptoms early and treat root causes.
Combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics
Also known as Med-Peds, practitioners seeking combined internal medicine and pediatrics training are highly versatile and are qualified to treat a diverse range of patients and ailments. After formal post-graduate training via combined residencies and fellowships, practitioners may go on to subspecialize within the Med-Peds discipline.
Many Med-Ped practitioners go on to be primary care providers, applying their unique skill set to general medicine and primary care. Due to their diverse backgrounds, these specialists are uniquely qualified to meet a number of physician shortages. The continuing education needs of these practitioners can therefore be met in a variety of primary care areas including emergency medicine, urgent care and pediatrics.