Family Medicine or Internal Medicine Doctor?

Choosing a Primary Care Physician

November 18, 2016
Internal medicine doctor or family doctor?

Karl Bernat Jr., MD, and Andrea Caplea, MD, MPH

Adults can choose a family medicine doctor or an internal medicine doctor as their primary care physician. Read this Q&A to help you decide what’s best for you.

Your primary care doctor is a key member of your health care team. He or she offers guidance to help you stay well, provides treatment and monitoring when you’re ill, and coordinates your care if you need specialized treatment.

At Duke Primary Care, adults have a choice between doctors specializing in family medicine or internal medicine. In many ways, these types of doctors are similar: Their common goal is to help you protect and improve your health. But there are differences in their training and the types of patients they see.

Dr. Andrea Caplea, MD, MPH, a family medicine doctor at Duke Primary Care Wellesley in Cary, and Dr. Karl Bernat Jr., MD, an internal medicine doctor at Duke Primary Care Heritage Internal Medicine in Wake Forest, each provided perspectives on their type of medical practice.

What Kinds of Patients Do You See?

Dr. Caplea: As a family medicine doctor, I see all types of patients, throughout all different stages of the life cycle. I see infants, children, adolescents, adults, up to end-of-life care. I often see members of the same family.

Dr. Bernat: As an internal medicine doctor, or internist, I see adults -- patients from 18 years and older.

What Types of Care Do You Provide?

Dr. Caplea: Family physicians provide comprehensive care. My primary focus is on preventive care.

I also provide chronic care management, as well as addressing acute issues that come up in between chronic care visits. And I perform minor procedures.

Dr. Bernat: In internal medicine, we provide a wide scope of primary care, including preventive care as well as the treatment of complex adult diseases -- like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

What Are Some of the Benefits to Your Patients?

Dr. Caplea: One benefit of a family medicine doctor is that I’m able to see how relationships between family members impact their health -- for example, couples who are trying to lose weight. We can also connect within different life stages: I have parents and adolescents who are experiencing complicated changes, and being able to understand where each individual is coming from helps me help them impact their own health. Also, one lovely time of life that I love is taking care of a new baby and a mom. I’m able to provide assistance with breastfeeding, newborn well-child care, pediatric vaccinations, and preventive services.

Dr.  Bernat: Internists serve as primary care doctors for non-complicated patients, but we have the added advantage that we’ve been specially trained to deal with the complexities of patients who have multiple medical problems or uncontrolled medical problems. We also try to help people who have diagnostic dilemmas -- for example, they may have multiple symptom complexes but are having trouble getting diagnoses. 

What Kinds of Training Do Family Medicine/Internal Medicine Doctors Receive?

Dr. Caplea: After medical school, family doctors complete a three-year residency that integrates outpatient care -- including community medicine -- and inpatient care. That gives us good exposure to managing diseases in different stages as well as prevention. A large focus is on outpatient care. I also did a lot of training in women’s health and pediatric medicine.

Dr. Bernat: Internal medicine doctors complete a three-year residency after medical school. That entails serving in the hospital as staff physicians, and having a clinic where we see outpatients. During that time, we train in critical care and critical cardiac patient management, so we have extensive training in caring for the sickest of the population. We also do rotations in specialties like cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.

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