What is internal medicine?
When people ask what type of medicine I practice and I respond, “Internal Medicine,” more often than not I either get a confused look and a questionable, “okay,” or I’m re-questioned what internal medicine is. The simplest way that I can define internal medicine is the phrase doctors for adults. More formally, internal medicine focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of adult diseases.
Like all other physicians, “internists,” as we are commonly called, have completed four years of medical school and then at least three years of postgraduate residency training. This is in contrast to “interns,” a label given to all physicians in their first year of residency training regardless of discipline. Upon completion of three years of residency training, internists either go on to become primary care providers for adults or hospital-based doctors for adults, or they undertake additional, specialized fellowship training. Those that opt for additional training go on to sub-specialize in one of 13 specific areas of internal medicine, such as cardiology, gastroenterology, intensive/critical care, allergy, or pulmonology. Those of us that opt for careers in primary care work primarily in office settings and are dubbed “general internists.” General internists are not the same as family [medicine] physicians, whose training is not solely concentrated on adults and may include pediatrics or obstetrics.
On a day-to-day basis, internists act as the first line of care for all non-emergent medical issues. We are specially trained to solve puzzling medical problems and manage chronic, complex and/or compounding illnesses, and we also handle basic coughs, colds, aches, rashes, and worries. Furthermore, we usually initiate and coordinate care when other medical specialists and surgeons are involved. In addition, our job is to properly educate patients on healthy living and prevention of diseases.
Just as all children have and regularly see a pediatrician, all adults should have either a general internist or a family medicine physician. And just as choosing the right pediatrician for your child is an important decision, choosing the right internist is something that should not be done fleetingly. Your general internist should be someone who you trust and someone you are able to effectively communicate with. You should feel comfortable disclosing information to your internist and have the utmost confidence in his, or her, abilities. Think of the decision as developing an effective partnership for the purpose of managing your well-being.
For more information on internal medicine, visit http://www.acponline.org/, the website of the American College of Physicians, the national organization of internists.