Which type of doctor do you think sees the largest number of patients every year…cardiologist? ENT? Pediatrician? Gynecologist? Actually, it’s none of those. Approximately one in four of all office visits are made to family physicians. That’s 214 million office visits each year in the U.S., nearly 74 million more than the next largest medical specialty.
Unlike other medical specialists who focus on a specific type of disease or a particular part of the body, family medicine practitioners provide comprehensive care to patients of all ages and genders through all stages of life, and treat a large variety of different health conditions.
At Westchester Health, we like to think of our family medicine practitioners as well-trained generalists, or extremely proficient jacks-of-all-trades, you might say. If you or a family member is sick or injured or has a health condition, a family physician is very often your best choice.
Family practitioners treat more than you think
Yes, family doctors perform your yearly check-up. But they also help you manage chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. They treat acute situations such as sinus infections, bleeding cuts and concussions. They help you throughout a pregnancy. They give vaccinations and advise you on healthier lifestyles such as quitting smoking or eating more sensibly. They also perform minor surgical procedures such as freezing a wart or draining an abscess. And the list goes on!
As they say, family physicians do not treat diseases, they take care of people.
What’s different about family doctors is that they provide continuing care across generations, in any age range, in the context of the whole family. They often see people in the sandwich generation—adults who are taking care of both their kids and their elderly parents and looking for comprehensive, continuing care for both age groups.
7 essential roles family doctors perform for their patients
They know your personal and family history well
When a doctor treats you for years, he/she gets to know your medical history inside and out. That helps them make accurate diagnoses, watch out for red flags regarding medications or allergies, and monitor changes in your health (such as a worsening of your asthma or a heart murmur that’s not responding to treatment). They know what’s “normal” for you, and are often the first person you confide in when you experience new or unusual symptoms.
The “family” in family doctor matters, too. Seeing multiple generations of a family can help a family doctor get an accurate, in-depth picture of how your health is influenced by your family’s health. For example, if you had cancer at a young age, and so did your mother, your family doctor might recommend genetic counseling and offer a screening plan not only for you but also for other family members at risk.
However, your family medical history is just part of the picture. Sometimes it helps to know what’s happening at home, too. When treating a child whose parents are divorcing, for example, that information comes into play when assessing stress and anxiety levels and their impact on the child’s health.
They follow your life cycle
Family practitioners treat toddlers, teens, 20-somethings, middle-aged adults, retirees and people well into their 90s, and often see the same patients for years or even decades. Because they treat a wide range of conditions, they can be your primary care physician at any point in your life. This also means that you can build a lasting relationship with your family doctor. They know you and you know them, which is very valuable, not only medically but in terms of trust and comfort levels.
They diagnose emerging conditions
A family doctor is often the first one to screen you for early signs of serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure or heart conditions, which means they’re often the first one to detect emerging health problems. They can order, perform and interpret tests to diagnose conditions, explain the results to you, monitor your progress and reevaluate your treatment when necessary.
They manage chronic illness
Stroke, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and cancer are some of the most common chronic and degenerative conditions managed by family physicians. They provide ongoing and personalized care through some of the most challenging times in your life, order diagnostic tests to assess your progress, and determine the next steps in your individualized treatment plan.
They oversee your healthcare team
Family practice doctors supervise the nurses, physician assistants and medical assistants who come into contact with you and your healthcare needs. They coordinate on your behalf with rehabilitation and occupational therapists, mental health workers, pharmacists, social workers and other healthcare providers. They refer you to a specialist if you have a serious condition that requires a more concentrated focus, but they stay involved and informed, acting as your primary care physician who interfaces with a collaborative network of physicians to provide you with integrated care to ensure all of your medical needs are met.
When you need a specialist, they help find the right fit
When you need to see a specialist for heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, COPD, cancer or any other serious health issue, a family doctor can help find someone who fits your specific needs and personality. Do you prefer a high-energy specialist with a bustling office or a soft-spoken one whose practice has an old-fashioned feel? Your family doctor will know, and refer you accordingly.
They help you prevent illness and live healthier
Educating their patients in disease prevention and health maintenance is one of the biggest functions a family doctor performs. They care for your entire well-being, including your mental and emotional needs. This might take the form of helping you with:
- Stress relief and anger management techniques
- Weight control and nutritional counseling
- Fertility testing and counseling
- Suggesting the best forms of physical exercise for your fitness level
- Guiding you to Quit Smoking resources
- Suggesting mental health, marital or drug/alcohol counseling
Medical emergencies are an exception
If you’re having an emergency (broken bone, stroke, heart attack, serious injury, extremely high fever), yes, you should go straight to the Emergency Room or call 911. However, far too many people use the ER or an urgent care facility as their primary source of medical care. If it’s not an emergency, seeing a family practitioner is the better choice for treatment in a vast majority of cases.
Read our blogs on the subject
We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on medical conditions in the field of family medicine, which you can read here.
Need a family doctor? Come see us.
If you would like to meet with a family practice practitioner, possibly for your whole family, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health family medicine physicians. Hopefully it will be the start of a long and healthy relationship. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Lawrence W. Goldstein, MD, a Family Medicine practitioner with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners