Internal medicine is a medical specialty that focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of nonsurgical conditions in adults. This specialty has a large number of subspecialties ranging from cardiology (diagnosis and treatment of heart disease) to gastroenterology (diagnosis and treatment of digestive disorders). The physician certified in this specialty is called an internist. Many adults use internists as their primary care physicians. Internists are not the same as interns–first-year doctors undergoing supervised post-graduate training in hospitals.
This medical specialty is incredibly varied, because it focuses on the whole body of the patient. Although the name suggests internal organs, internists do treat skin conditions and often provide psychological counseling. Internists are often used as diagnosticians to solve medical puzzles, since they are familiar with a wide range of medical conditions and their causes. Internists also promote preventive medicine, such as healthful eating, weight reduction, smoking cessation, and regular exercise. Internists occasionally define themselves by what they don’t treat: no pediatrics, no ob-gyn, no surgery.
Some common sub-specialties in internal medicine include cardiology (heart), endocrinology (glands), rheumatology (joints), infectious diseases, hematology (blood), oncology (cancer), pulmonology (lungs). A general internist may refer a patient to a specialist if he or she feels that a treatment requires special care.
To become an internist, a newly graduated MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) must complete post-graduate training, called residency, in a certified and approved teaching hospital. Once qualified by his or her residency, an internist can take a series of examinations to become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Specialty training requires additional time in a teaching hospital, called a fellowship, and also board certification.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between family practice and internal medicine?
Primary care physicians generally fall into one of two categories: family medicine doctors and internal medicine doctors. The main delineating factor between the two, is the age of their patients. Internal medicine doctors predominantly treat only adults. Family medicine doctors treat both adults and children — i.e. the entire family. The kind of doctor that treats only children is a pediatrician. It’s commonly thought that the biggest difference is internal medicine doctors are like adult pediatricians.
Regardless of your age, it’s important to your health that you develop a relationship with a physician.
Can an internal medicine doctor prescribe pain medication?
Yes, it is common place for an internist to prescribe pain medication. However, if a patient is dealing with continual, chronic pain, internal medicine doctors tend to avoid prescribing pain relief prescriptions over a month, so they will often refer this kind of patient to a pain management specialist.
Especially in the case of chronic pain and the request for continual pain management prescriptions, it is often in a patient’s best interest to go see their internal medicine doctor and get a referral to a pain management specialist — even if it is not required by the patient’s insurance. You’ve built a rapport and medical history understanding with your internal medicine doctor. Their insight into your specific needs can often be of great benefit to a specialist, and can help build an initial level of trust between you and a new pain management specialist.
Can an internal medicine doctor treat mental illnesses like depression?
Primary care physicians and internal medicine doctors can and commonly do treat mild to moderate depression, and many patients do often prefer to discuss these issues with their internist, as often, they are the patient’s primary medical provider. Internal doctors can and often do prescribe medicines to treat or help mitigate mental illness symptoms like anti-depressants, adderall, etc.; however, it is not uncommon for an internal medicine doctor to refer their patients to a mental health specialist for continued or further treatment.
Each patient is different, and it is up to you and your internal medicine doctor to determine the kind of treatment that is right for you.
As an adult, how often should you see your internal medicine doctor?
Every case and patient is different, so there’s no real quantifiable amount of times that you should see your internal physician. However, many doctors recommend that an annual check up is the best practice for the average healthy adult. It’s a great way to stay on top of your own health and wellness as well as provide the opportunity to catch any chronic illness in it’s early stages to enact higher quality treatment.
For those already suffering chronic illnesses, the need to visit your internist may be high. For example, patients with diabetes are commonly encouraged to meet with their physician at least once ever 3 – 4 months to monitor and obtain accurate blood glucose levels.
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