What Is Internal Medicine?
If you’re interested in becoming a physician who focuses on treating a wide range of internal diseases and conditions in adults, you might want to consider a career in internal medicine. You might be curious to know exactly what is internal medicine. As a doctor of internal medicine, you’ll serve as the first point of care for your patients. It’s a specialty that often attracts doctors interested in a broad range of care and in building relationships with patients they treat over the course of their adulthoods.
If you’re considering internal medicine, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you enjoy talking to patients and forming a relationship with them?
- Do you want to work in both a hospital and in-office setting?
- Do you seek variety in your work—treating an ear infection in one patient while puzzling through a complex coronary issue with your next patient?
- Do you want a career in one of the most in-demand fields of medicine?
- Do you want to focus on treating adult patients rather than children?
If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then internal medicine might be the right specialty for you.
WHAT DOES AN INTERNIST DO?
The term internal medicine is derived from the German phase innere medizin, which loosely translates into the science of combining laboratory research with patient care. German doctors brought this term to the United States in the early 1900s, which American physicians adopted as “internal medicine.” Contrary to popular belief many think that internal medicine physicians only treat internal systems while they actually treat the whole body.
Internal medicine physicians are also known as “internists”. You may be wondering, what is an internist? An internist specializes in managing diseases of internal organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. They serve as a primary care physician for patients from age 18 through old age. As primary care doctors, they focus on disease prevention, substance abuse, mental health, and treatment of common problems of the eyes, ears, skin, nervous system, and reproductive organs, according to the American Medical Association.
Internal medicine gives physicians the opportunity to combine clinical diagnostics on a wide range of complex and common conditions with a personalized and compassionate approach to medicine. Internists also diagnose and treat a variety of chronic adult conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung conditions. They are usually the first doctor a patient sees, and if necessary, they will refer them to a specialist physician.
HOW DO YOU TRAIN FOR INTERNAL MEDICINE?
To become an internist, a graduate of a four-year medical school—like the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine—must complete a residency in internal medicine, according to the American College of Physicians (ACP). During residency, doctors train extensively in hospitals and clinics. The general internal residency program usually takes three years to complete.
Once a doctor completes internal medicine residency, they are eligible for board certification as general internal medicine physicians. A general internist is recognized as an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of illness and in disease prevention. Their practice focus is not limited to one type of medical problem or organ system.
Approximately 50% of internists are general internal medicine physicians, according to the ACP. Many general internists serve as primary care doctors, caring for patients both in practice and hospital settings. Others become hospitalists, who focus on hospitalized patients.
Internists who want to subspecialize in a specific field of internal medicine must take additional training. Common subspecialties include:
- Infection diseases
- Pulmonary care
An internal medicine resident can combine training with another specialty, which allows them to be eligible for board certification in both specialties, according to the ACP. Common combined training programs include:
- Emergency medicine
- Family practice
- Medical genetics
- Preventive medicine
Some internists take training to develop research skills after residency, typically through a Ph.D. or a research fellowship. This can take up to an additional three years of training.
A CAREER IN INTERNAL MEDICINE
Since Internists have a broad scale of conditions they treat, they have the option to work in a variety of settings. They have the choice to work in clinics, medical offices or hospitals. Some internists may choose to work independently and open their own practice.
You may be wondering what does an internal medicine doctor do on a normal basis? On average, internists work four or five days a week and see about 20 to 25 patients. This may vary depending on whether they have their own practice or work on-call. Compared with other medical specialties, internal medicine physicians have more flexibility in regards to the hours they work and the career path they choose.
No matter the subspecialty or career path an internal medicine physician decides to take, they get the opportunity to help patients manage their overall health over a long period of time. With hard work and a dedicated passion for caring for others, internal medicine can prove to be a very rewarding field to pursue.
MEET AN INTERNIST-PEDIATRICIAN
Rebecca Gerrity MD, a 2019 graduate of AUC, is a resident physician in internal-pediatric medicine at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis. We asked Dr. Gerrity to describe the role of a MedPeds physician.
Q: Why did you go into your specialty?
A: Internal Medicine and Pediatrics is a residency training program and career path that allows physicians ample inpatient and outpatient medicine and pediatrics exposure, opens the doors to fellowships in all medicine and pediatrics subspecialties, and allows for a deep understanding of how childhood illnesses and experiences can impact adult diseases. What could be better?! In addition to all the amazingness that MedPeds offers, I had a few experiences in medical school which made me realize that my passion in medicine lay in helping individuals in low-middle-income countries/counties in the US. Internal Medicine and Pediatrics was absolutely the right choice for me as it allows me comprehensive training in a wide spectrum of disease states/presentations across all ages.
Q: Any advice to medical students considering the specialty?
A: Use all your resources and reach out to alumni. I was so lucky to have an early introduction to Dr. Desai who visited SXM early in my second year of medical school. Dr. Desai completed a residency in MedPeds and introduced me to the idea and I am forever grateful to him! I also was able to speak with numerous AUC MedPeds alumni via email and this led me to further understand the vast opportunities allotted to MedPeds Physicians. The resources that AUC has to offer through OSPD are incredible – I cannot emphasize how awesome they are at helping you set yourself up for success.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: The patients and the physicians I work with make my job the best job in the world! I relish the humbling opportunity to treat patients and communicate with their families. Developing relationships with patients, understanding what makes them happy, who they love, and what their hopes are for when they are better is what makes this job rewarding. I cannot help but mention the incredible colleagues and faculty that I work with every day. My co-residents make the job infinitely easier and offer so much support and empathy when the hard days roll through. The faculty at UTHSC are incredible – they are interested in each residents’ passion and are eager to help us succeed in whatever career we have in mind after residency. Finding “your people” and banding together to serve patients is what makes this job so rewarding and I hope that every person can find a community as wonderful as mine to support them through their residency!
DEMAND FOR INTERNAL MEDICINE
A stunning 2020 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) showed that the United States will see a shortage of nearly 122,000 physicians by 2032 as demand for doctors grows faster than supply. The report projects a shortage of up to 55,200 primary care doctors. A 2019 Doximity report ranks internists second only to family medicine doctors as the most in-demand specialty in the coming decade.
AUC has a strong history of placing graduating students in internal medicine residencies. In 2020, 71% of AUC graduates were placed in primary care residencies, including internal medicine. Start on your path to internal medicine: Apply for admission in AUC.