Definition and Overview
Internal medicine is a medical specialty that deals with a broad range of diseases and health problems affecting the internal organs of adults. Specialists are referred to as doctors of medicine, internist, or general internist. The titles should not be confused with interns, which are used for medical students who are in their first year of residency.
Broadly speaking, internists are doctors for adults, although they also work closely with the elderly and adolescents, who are usually 17 years old and above. Their scope is extremely comprehensive.
They are required to possess clinical knowledge and expertise on both simple and complex diseases that are caused by or are affecting the internal organs. On the other hand, since complex diseases can affect different organs, the internist may, up to a certain point, deal with the skin and other external structures.
They are responsible for the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of internal diseases. The treatment may be short- or long-term depending on the health condition. They are also expected to provide preventive measures to improve the quality of life of patients, and promote better health and well-being. Their knowledge in a wide variety of diseases also makes them ideal consultants to general doctors or family physicians. They can also specialize in mental health and substance abuse.
Internists can provide family care, but they're different from family doctors. They are not experts in infant and maternal care, although they have some training in gynecology.
Although internists are expected to know even the rarest diseases and conditions, they can also subspecialize. According to the American College of Physicians, the biggest organization for internists, there are 13 possible areas of expertise for internal medicine doctors. These include:
- Adolescent medicine, including psychological and sexual development
- Sports medicine
- Oncology, such as radiation and surgical
- Immunology, which deals with any condition affecting the immune system such as allergies
- Hematology (conditions affecting the blood)
- Nephrology (conditions affecting the kidneys)
- Endocrinology, including diseases and conditions that are related to metabolism and hormones
- Infectious diseases
- Gastroenterology (conditions affecting the intestinal tract and colon)
This simply means that a pulmonologist, who specializes in the lung, is also considered as an internist, provided he or she works only with adults.
Because internal medicine can be wide ranging, the length of training for internists can greatly vary. Usually, they begin with eight years of education including four years in medical school. They then proceed to residency for general internal medicine, which may last for five years. If they like to specialize, they would need at least 1 to 3 years.
There are two boards that offer certification: American Osteopathic Board of Internal Medicine and American Board of Internal Medicine.
When to See an Internist
Consider seeing an internist when you:
Want to improve your overall health – Internists can provide guidance, counseling, and other preventive interventions to improve the quality of life. They can monitor or reduce the possibility of diseases caused by genetic risks.
Need long-lasting comprehensive care – Internists treat the whole person rather than individual symptoms or diseases. Thus, they are ideal for patients who require long-term and even palliative care. They can diagnose and treat chronic diseases such as diabetes and autoimmune disorders.
Have broad symptoms – Many serious diseases can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms may mimic those of other illnesses. Some don't show symptoms at all until the disease is already in the late stages. Working with an internist while young ensures a more precise diagnosis and prompt treatment.
Develop conditions affecting any of the body's systems – These include circulatory, respiratory, vascular (or cardiovascular), digestive, and urinary tract.
Have problems with mental health – Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are actually very complex as they can relate beyond emotions. They can be caused, for example, by abnormal activities in the brain, a lingering disease, or hormonal imbalances, which internists can work on.