Just what is a family physician, anyway?


Fam Pract Manag. 2004 Sep;11(8):14.

To the Editor:

I agree with Dr. Sanford Brown’s concerns that the name “family physician” does not accurately portray what we do [Practice Diary, April 2004, page 60]. Although it has been written that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it helps that everybody knows what a rose is. As evidenced by the findings of the Future of Family Medicine project, a large number of people are unaware of or confused about what family physicians do. This should not come as a surprise, for when I look back at my own experience, I recall that I had never even heard of family medicine until I went to medical school. Furthermore, after my three years of residency and two in practice, my parents (both with advanced degrees) are still somewhat unclear about what I do.

Family medicine is not easily categorized. It is not identical from physician to physician. Some of us include obstetrics in our practice, while others include general surgery or specialize in geriatrics or sports medicine. Some of us perform colposcopies, vasectomies or Botox injections, and others don’t. When patients choose a family physician, they really don’t know which basket of services will be included.

Family medicine is probably the only specialty formed from a perceived need, rather than from an actual need. I treat very few families in my practice, and I treat even fewer with respect to the intricacies of family dynamics and interactions. I am afraid some patients decide not to come to us because they need care only for themselves, not for their entire family.

It seems there are no easy answers. Perhaps a better name for family physicians would be “comprehensive lifespan physicians.” However, the definition of comprehensive would vary from physician to physician. Perhaps we should consider the name “generalist physician.” After all, though it lacks pizzazz, it is fairly descriptive and easily understood.


Send your comments to fpmedit@aafp.org. Submission of a letter will be construed as granting AAFP permission to publish the letter in any of its publications in any form. We cannot respond to all letters we receive. Those chosen for publication will be edited for length and style.


Copyright © 2004 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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