To understand the difference between an internist and a primary care physician, it is important to realize that one is a specialty, and the other is a role. An internist is a physician who specializes in internal medicine, and is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of adult diseases. While an internist can function as a primary care physician, he or she may also focus their practice on hospital medicine, medical education and/or research. On the other hand, a primary care physician may be an internist, a pediatrician, a geriatrician, a family practitioner, a gynecologist or an obstetrician, because primary care involves the practice of promoting overall health for the entire individual within the specific population (geriatrics, pediatrics, etc.) of the physician’s specialty. Let’s first look at the specialty of internal medicine, and then examine how these and other physicians practice in the primary care environment.
The Internist: The Internal Medicine Specialist
Internists are physicians who have specialized training in the diagnosis and management of illness in adult patients. This means that they are capable of helping their patients stay healthy and prevent illness, but are also able to diagnose and treat both acute and chronic illnesses. Just a few of the many illnesses an internist would treat include hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney disease, asthma, heart disease, arthritis, bronchitis, ear infections, back pain and the common cold. The list is exhaustive but basically includes any illness than can affect adults.
Internists are particularly skilled in reviewing the symptoms of patients with complex problems, performing physical exams, ordering diagnostic tests, and using this information to identify both common and rare illnesses. They are basically the detectives and problem-solvers of adult medicine; and they are also experts in treating extremely ill adults. This is why internists are found in a variety of roles and settings. You may have an internist as your primary care physician, treating you in an office or clinic. However, some internists, known as hospitalists, care for acutely ill patients in the hospital. And some do both. Because of their specialized education and training, internists are exceptionally suited for treating patients with multiple medical problems, understanding how these illnesses, their medications, and their treatments interact, and adjusting the plan of care to best suit the individual patient’s needs.
The Primary Care Physician
A primary care physician (PCP) is basically the physician that you’ve always known as “your doctor.” They are responsible for the ongoing health and wellbeing of their patients, by promoting healthy behavior, helping you prevent illness, and quickly diagnosing and treating any new or potential health problems. He or she is the doctor who knows you the best and who you can turn to for any health concerns. The primary care physician is usually your first contact with the health care system, and they are skilled in providing a comprehensive assessment of health care needs, as well as continuous monitoring of chronic illnesses and treatment of new problems. They will also know when a referral to another specialist is warranted.
The central person in primary care is the patient, and the primary care doctor will focus on you as a whole individual. They work hard to maintain a trusting relationship with their patients and will partner with you to come up with the best plan for your good health. This plan will usually include age-appropriate health maintenance, routine monitoring, immunizations, counseling, patient education, and treatment of acute and chronic illnesses. To realize the real benefit of having a primary care physician, you should look at them as your focal point of all your health care needs. By turning to your primary care physician first, you will make sure that the doctor treating you knows and understands you; and you will avoid unnecessary tests or trips to specialists.
The role of primary care physician is performed by more than one type of physician, and each provides care to the population that they have specialized in. Internists are experts in the care of adults, or those 18 years and older. Geriatricians, on the other hand, are internists that have additional training for the medical needs of adults 65 and older. Family Practice physicians are qualified to provide primary care for patients of all ages, from newborns to the elderly, while pediatricians see patients from infancy through adolescence. Specialists in obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) can provide primary care for women, including reproductive health and family planning. While we often think of primary care practices as those in outpatient offices and clinic, in reality, primary care can be performed in a number of settings. This includes long-term care settings such as nursing homes, home care, day-care and even in the hospital. Whichever the setting, the primary care physician carefully tailors the healthcare plan to meet the individual needs of each patient, with the goal of helping their patients achieve their highest level of health.
When your doctor knows and understands you, and is carefully monitoring your health needs, the results are bound to be of benefit to you. With the focus on prevention and early action when an illness arises, the primary care physician can often help patients avoid severe illness, the need for specialists and hospitalizations. Experts agree that primary care increases everyone’s access to healthcare and improves the quality of health care. On a more personal level, patients and physicians are given the opportunity to form trusting and lasting relationships.
We would be happy to answer any questions you may have about internal medicine or primary care. At Advanced Medical, PA, we pride ourselves in providing quality health care in both internal medicine and primary care. To learn more about us and the services we offer, or to schedule a visit, call us at (561) 434-1935 to request an appointment, or request one online.