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What is an Internist?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Internists are doctors who often work as general practitioners but also advanced training, lasting from three to more years after medical school, so that they have become specifically skilled in treating diseases inside the body or as it relates to one or more body systems. A number of internists choose to specialize in a specific system or organ, and there are internists who are cardiologists, gastroenterologists and others. Alternately, they can train to work with a population of people and might be geriatric medicine practitioners or pediatricians. The big difference between a person who simply calls himself an internist and a cardiologist is that the internist will see people for regular medical care too, and not just for their area of specialty.

For example, geriatric medicine relates to diseases that affect people as they age. Most internists that specialize in geriatric medicine would have a population of patients who are elderly, but they wouldn’t only seem them for age related conditions. They would see them for all conditions including for a bout of strep throat or an ear infection. Similarly an internist specializing in gastroenterology doesn’t just work with patients when they have trouble with gastrointestinal function, he’d work with them when they have a case of pink eye, the flu, or bronchitis.

Many people prefer to work with an internist because this doctor functions as the primary care doctor and has specialty training. Anyone with serious illness in one of the body’s systems might feel more comfortable finding a doctor who has specialized in this system and who is also trained to treat common illnesses. Of course, it isn’t always possible to find an internist specializing in the area that people need. Others choose an internist as their primary doctor even if they don’t have illnesses, which the doctor is especially trained to treat.

This brings up an interesting point. Though an internist may have a sub-specialty, not all of these doctors do. Some merely complete a three-year residency after medical school in internal medicine.

Once this residency is successfully completed, doctors can simply get certification, if in the US, through the American Board of Internal Medicine. It is not necessary to take further residencies or fellowships in the field. Training already leads to strong expertise in diagnosing and treating diseases of the body’s systems and especially internal organs. This additional training beyond medical school makes the internist particularly attractive to some patients, and most who have health coverage and must choose a primary physician can choose internists if they prefer.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon342206 — On Jul 18, 2013

@thumbtack: You are thinking of an intern (person in training).

By anon262071 — On Apr 18, 2012

But what do family doctors do then?

By anon140230 — On Jan 06, 2011

this article doesn't meant internist like an intern out of college. it's more like a family practitioner. they can specialize in a specific area, but they can treat patients on most other every-day ailments.

By fitness234 — On Sep 24, 2010

@thumbtack, As a medical resident in our local emergency room, I can assure you that there is great care taken in the oversight of our internists. Now it is possible that other hospitals around the nation have less stringent controls of these youngsters but I highly doubt that people are so ignorant.

After the past few decades of legal wars in the medical industry, hospitals and general practitioner MD's are very careful about dealing with patient care. Negligence is very rare when dealing with this profession as the licensing and control is very strict.

Board exams and a myriad of testing happens on a constant basis for anyone administering you medicine in the United States. I believe that we do have a strong system for internists to learn in and if they complete the programs they will pursue very helpful lives treating sick people.

By thumbtack — On Sep 24, 2010

Whenever I go to the hospital, I am scared that I will be assigned an internist for my condition and treatment. It would be the same as going to the beauty school to have your hair cut, except some things doctors cut, don't grow back.

I realize that they probably have excellent supervision but can other doctors really spend that much time watching over their internists? How many cases just slip by and people become sicker because of the lack of experience that these young, doctor-to-be types have.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Practical Adult Insights contributor...
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