Options and subspecialties in family practice

November 25, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Many types of medical specialties deal with a specific disease or a certain part of the body. For example, oncologists treat people with cancer. Pulmonologists specialize in treating lung disease. But family practice is different. Family practice doctors care for patients with all types of conditions.  

What is family practice?

Gap Medics student Liam in the pediatric department, Iringa Regional Hospital, Tanzania Family practice doctors care for patients over a long period of time. They treat patients of all ages with many different conditions. Physicians who specialize in family practice may treat people with chronic medical conditions and acute or sudden illnesses. In addition, family practice doctors provide preventative care and health information, which helps patients manage their health.

The responsibilities of a family care doctor include providing medical exams, ordering and reviewing diagnostic tests and prescribing treatment. They also focus on preventing illnesses through health screenings and recommended lifestyle changes. Family practice doctors may treat patients with a number of different conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, infections and injuries.

Family practice doctors also coordinate the patient’s care with other physicians. For instance, in non-emergent situations, patients will often see their family doctor first. A family practice doctor recognizes when a referral to a specialist is needed. 


Becoming board certified in family practice

Individuals interested in this area of medicine will start the path to become a doctor while still an undergraduate. Before applying to med school, a four-year degree is required. Any premed major is allowed, but good choices may include psychology, biochemistry and developmental biology. Consider choosing a major that will allow you to reach your full academic potential and one you will enjoy.

Although your major may not matter, you have to take certain classes as part of the medical school admission requirements. Check with the med schools you are interested in for the exact classes you need.

Once you get into medical school, plan on four challenging years of classroom lectures and clinical rotations. Although you will complete a clinical rotation in family medicine, you are also required to do other rotations in specialties, such as emergency medicine, surgery and psychiatry.

After graduating from medical school, completing a residency is next. Family practice residency is three years long. Although new programs continue to emerge, in 2013, there were about 470 accredited family practice residencies in the United States, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

During residency, doctors will continue to train in different areas of medicine. Since family practice doctors treat such varied conditions, residency training includes rotations in the intensive care unit, inpatients care and obstetrics. After completion of all training requirements during residency, doctors are eligible to take the board certification exam administered by American Board of Family Medicine.

Family practice doctors often join a family practice or start their own practice. Although they spend time seeing patients in their office, they also care for patients in nursing homes, hospitals, clinics and urgent care centers. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the median yearly salary for family practice doctors in 2013 was about $180,000.


Subspecialties in family practice  

Some doctors choose to narrow their focus and pursue a subspecialty of family practice. In most cases, after becoming board certified in family practice, an additional fellowship in the chosen subspecialty is required. Fellowships for family practice subspecialties vary from one to two years. Below are four subspecialties of family practice to consider. 


Sleep Medicine

 Millions of people suffer from sleep disorders, which can interfere with their ability to function normally. Sleep medicine specialists diagnose and treat various types of sleep disorders. 

Doctors who specialize in sleep medicine care for people with conditions including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and sleepwalking. They may work with children, infants and adults. After completing a sleep medicine fellowship, doctors may take the sleep medicine certification exam and become board certified in the subspecialty.

Physicians who work in sleep medicine may find employment in sleep labs and clinics associated with medical centers or owned independently. Many also go into private practice or research. Some sleep medicine doctors, combine a family care practice and sleep medicine practice. The average salary for a sleep medicine doctor in 2013 was about $260,000 a year.


Adolescent Medicine

  On the internal medicine ward in India Adolescent medicine doctors go through additional training to care for the unique needs of adolescents. They treat various conditions, which may occur in young people, such as developmental disorders, growth and hormone problems and substance abuse issues. Doctors trained in adolescent medicine understand that treating teens may require a different approach then treating adults.

Adolescent medicine physicians work in private practice, children’s hospitals, mental health facilities and colleges. Salary for an adolescent medicine doctor is about $200,000 a year on average.


Geriatric Medicine

 Geriatric medicine specialists focus on the care and treatment of the elderly. Doctors complete specialized training to diagnose and treat various health conditions associated with an aging population. They may treat conditions including strokes, dementia and vision and hearing changes. A one-year fellowship in geriatric medicine is required to become certified in this subspecialty. Geriatric medicine specialists work in hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers. Salaries for geriatric medicine doctors are similar to family practice physicians.


Hospice and Palliative Care Medicine

 Hospice and palliative care specialties do not necessarily focus on curing a condition. Instead, they provide treatment and care, which is aimed at easing symptoms and improving a patient’s quality of life.

Palliative care and hospice are not the exact same thing. Hospice doctors provide care for patients at the end of their life. Palliative care doctors may treat patients at any stage of their illness. They may also care for patients at the end of their life, but they also treat patients who have curable conditions. 

After completing a one or two-year fellowship, physicians are eligible to take the hospice and palliative care board certification exam. Doctors in hospice and palliative care work in hospice centers, hospitals and private practice. The average yearly salary in 2013 was about $200,000 according to the 2013 Medscape Physician Compensation report.