Family medicine physicians, or family practitioners, are primary care physicians who treat patients of all ages (hence the term “family medicine”) from pediatrics through geriatrics. Family practitioners help manage and diagnose a variety of common illnesses and conditions covering a broad spectrum of health issues.
Upon examination of a patient, if more specialized treatment or surgery is necessary to treat a more serious illness, a family physician will then refer a patient to a physician specialist or surgeon to continue health treatment in a more in-depth nature. Unlike internists, some family practitioners, particularly those in smaller towns, may practice obstetrics (caring for pregnant mothers and delivering babies) in addition to general family medicine.
Typical Schedule and Hours
Family physicians typically hold clinic (seeing patients in an office setting) four to five days per week. Some family practitioners take a day off or half day off from clinic hours, while some may choose to spend a day or more per week rounding on nursing home patients outside of the office.
Additionally, depending on the hospital coverage situation, many family physicians also visit the hospital daily to round on their patients who have been admitted, while other family physicians may have hospitalists who take care of their inpatients so that the FP can focus on outpatient care.
In addition to office hours and hospital rounds or nursing home rounds, the family physician may also be on call for several nights per week and one or more weekends per month. When on-call, the physician may be able to admit patients to a hospitalist over the phone, or the physician may have to go to the hospital when paged, depending on the hospital staff and set-up.
During office hours, a family physician may see anywhere from 22-25 patients per day on average, with some doctors seeing up to 30 patients daily.
Office visits may include immunizations, yearly physicals, colds and flu, common skin issues or “lumps and bumps”, and a wide variety of patients with chronic issues such as hypertension, allergies, or diabetes.
During a patient visit, the family physician reviews the patient chart and examines the patient after the nurse or assistant has recorded the patient’s vital signs.
Any further tests will be ordered and completed, and the family practitioner will then determine the diagnosis, or refer the patient to a specialist or for further testing if needed.
The doctor will then create a treatment plan which may include medication, dietary changes, minor surgical procedure, or a trip to another doctor. Then the physician will write the prescription and, if needed, a follow-up visit will be scheduled.
According to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), the average yearly compensation for FPs who do not practice obstetrics is $164,021. For FPs who do practice obstetrics, the average pay is a bit higher, at $176,796. As with any physician specialty, the annual earnings are affected by a number of factors including geographic region, partnership, town size, and patient volume.
What's to Like
FP may be a good choice for those who do not want to do a lot of procedures or surgeries. Additionally, since many hospitals now employ hospitalists, there are practices and jobs available to family practice doctors which do not involve any hospital work at all. This may allow FPs to enjoy a more predictable schedule and better quality of life than some other specialists who have to be more available for emergencies or surgeries.
What's Not to Like
Relatively speaking, family practice is one of the lower-paying specialties one can choose to practice. Also, many FPs feel crunched by decreasing reimbursements from managed care companies, which causes them to have to see more patients in less time in order to earn what they need and want to earn annually.
Career Paths and Practice Options
Family practice physicians can choose from a variety of options. An FP can go into business on his or her own and open up a private practice. Many hospitals are willing to provide an income guarantee, which is basically a forgivable loan, or “draws” to help primary care physicians such as family practice doctors get started in practice.
Additionally, Family practice docs can practice “traditional” family medicine, which is described above and entails a primarily office-based practice with some hospital work caring for one’s patients in the hospital. Also, family practitioners can work “outpatient only” jobs, which offer a more predictable schedule as there is little to no on-call time.
Family practitioners also may choose to be employed by urgent care facilities or retail chains, although these options often do not pay as well as private practice. Additionally, some hospitals are opting to employ family physicians in some cases, presenting another option for physicians who do not wish to deal with the business side of owning a practice.
Some physicians who train in family medicine may decide to work as a hospitalist. This is also an option, but many hospitals prefer to hire doctors who have trained in internal medicine since internal medicine residencies typically offer more intensive training in inpatient medicine.