What are Family Doctors?

wiseGEEK Writer

Defining the term "family doctors" is a little bit difficult because the term has been undergoing changes. Generally people view “family doctors” as the same as general practitioners, and anyone who completes medical school and then immediately gets a license after a year’s training is generally a general practitioner. Yet family doctors may now complete additional training, lasting about four years, which allows them to call themselves family medical practitioners. Another route is training to become a doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) and this may qualify people to work in general practice.

Family doctors may take training in obstetrics to deliver babies.
Family doctors may take training in obstetrics to deliver babies.

Thus asking what a family doctor is can be complicated. Some are general practitioners or DOs, and others are family medical practitioners. Most work in general offices where they may see people for routine care and minor illnesses from birth on. A few family doctors or family medical practitioners will specialize and they might be particularly equipped to deal with children, or with delivering children. Lots of general practitioners take training in obstetrics so they can deliver babies, though women may prefer seeing an obstetrician for birth needs. Similarly, lots of family doctor types are well equipped to administer checks of kids and well-child exams, but parents may prefer to take their kids to pediatricians instead.

Family doctors are general practitioners who deal with basic illnesses.
Family doctors are general practitioners who deal with basic illnesses.

There is perhaps an easier way of looking at the job of family doctors. They may see patients of all ages for most basic illnesses and for preventative care. When care becomes complex, these doctors usually refer the patient to a specialist who is more adept at handling difficult medical matters. Family doctors may continue to coordinate care and usually the specialist keeps this doctor informed of any medical procedures or choices made.

There is an increasing shortage of family doctors in the U.S.
There is an increasing shortage of family doctors in the U.S.

Patients looking for a primary care physician might wonder if there would be a huge difference between choosing a family medical practitioner and a general practitioner. Actually there could be. Given the extensive additional training of the family medical practitioner, it would be reasonable to assume that most of these doctors are more equipped to handle patients of diverse age ranges through most common illnesses and for the majority of preventative care. This does not mean that a skilled general practitioner is by any means incapable of caring for patients, but the “family doctor” certainly has more training.

Different countries may define family doctors in various ways and may construct training programs that are widely varied. Within each country, people looking for a doctor can evaluate by which standards a person is judged a family doctor or a general practitioner. When doctors decide to practice in a country different from the one in which they were trained they may need to fulfill additional requirements prior to obtaining licensure.

One thing noted in the US is an increasing shortage of available family medical practitioners or the standard “family doctors.” Since training for this specialty is extensive and since this is one of the least glamorous and poorest paid of the medical specialties it can fail to attract new physicians. Employment outlook for these doctors is excellent because of shortage, but pay still remains relatively low, and in the first few years of practice these doctors can easily make less than $100,000 US Dollars (USD). They will gross even less because many must carry their own malpractice insurance, and need to repay extensive student loans.

Family doctors may refer complex cases to specialists.
Family doctors may refer complex cases to specialists.

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Discussion Comments


@Buster29, when my family doctor retired a few years ago, I asked him to recommend a new primary care physician for my family. He paused for a moment and shook his head. He said the nearest family doctor was 50 miles away, and he wasn't accepting new patients. I would be better off looking for a general practitioner in town or go to one of those private urgent care clinics for non-emergency treatment.


I honestly can't remember the last "family doctor" who set up a practice in my area. Most of my former primary care doctors called themselves general practitioners, or possibly internal medical specialists. When I was a child during the 1960s, however, everyone I knew went to the same family doctor in our small town. He treated us for just about everything, when he wasn't called to work at the hospital.

I can see why a lot of new doctors either want to become specialists or surgeons, but there still should be some who simply want to practice general medicine and set up private practices in small towns.

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