Family doctors are trained to serve as primary care providers for the entire family, treating patients of all ages - these physicians are generally the first point of contact and may refer patients to specialists if necessary.

Watch an Overview of Family Medicine

About Family Medicine

The American Academy of Family Physicians defines family medicine as the “achievement of optimal physical and mental health through accessible, safe, cost-effective care that is based on best evidence, responsive to the needs and preferences of patients and populations, and respectful of patients’ families, personal values, and beliefs"; family practitioners treat patients of any sex or age for complications and diseases affecting any organ system. Family practices are based around lasting, caring and close relationships between a family of patients and the practitioner, although family practitioners do not necessarily have to treat every member of a family.

Family practitioners draw on their vast educational training and experiences to provide both continuing and comprehensive care to patients of all ages and in all stages of life, addressing a wide range of disorders and complications. According to the Family Medicine Interest Group, visits to family physicians comprise nearly a quarter of all primary care doctor visits. Family medicine typically encompasses a three pronged approach, making use of knowledge, skills, and process.

Family practitioners employ an integration of clinical, biological, and behavior sciences in their practices, incorporating all aspects of their patients’ lives during treatment (which some may classify as a holistic approach). Family practitioners refer patients to specialists when their condition requires more specialized or advanced care.

Family Medicine Education & Training

The education and training required to become a family practice physician, or family practitioner, begins with the completion of a four year undergraduate degree before; the student must then complete a four year MD or DO medical degree. Following graduation from medical school, the physician must participate in a three year residency program specializing in family medicine. During a family medicine residency, the physician receives hands-on training and instruction in the areas of ambulatory, inpatient and community medicine. The residency must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), and generally provides rotating instruction in the following medical specialties: inpatient hospital care, general surgery, pediatrics, and obstetrics.

After completing a residency, many family doctors choose to become board certified in family medicine by the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM). To earn board certification, the doctor must pass a certification exam proctored by the ABFM. To maintain their board certification, the physician must complete a recertification process every seven years.

Family doctors may also pursue an additional two years of residency training in the following areas: emergency medicine, internal medicine, or psychiatry. Additionally, family doctors may also complete a fellowship, or a post-residency program (typically lasting one year), which offers additional specialized training in one of the following areas: sports medicine, rural medicine, research, geriatrics, obstetrics, preventive medicine, or faculty development. The ABFM also offers Certificates of Added Qualifications (CAQs) in the following areas: adolescent medicine, geriatrics, hospice and palliative care, sleep medicine, and sports medicine. CAQs must be recertified every ten years.