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What is a Doctor of Internal Medicine, or Internist?

"Most of the great leaders in medicine in general have come from internal medicine because of the breadth and depth of its academic and clinical work. It draws the best and brightest." -- David Gremillion, MD, FACP

Internal medicine physicians, or internists, are specialists who apply scientific knowledge and clinical expertise to the diagnosis, treatment, and compassionate care of adults across the spectrum from health to complex illness. They are especially well trained in the diagnosis of puzzling medical problems, in the ongoing care of chronic illnesses, and in caring for patients with more than one disease. Internists also specialize in health promotion and disease prevention.

Internal medicine physicians can be called "internists," "general internists," and "doctors of internal medicine." (But don't mistake them with "interns," who are doctors in their first year of residency training.) Although internists may act as primary care physicians, they are not family physicians, family practitioners, or general practitioners, whose training is not solely concentrated on adults and may include surgery, obstetrics, and pediatrics.

Internists routinely see patients with conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and chronic lung disease. An internist may consult with doctors in other fields of medicine, or may be called to consult on a patient by another specialist.

To become an internist, a graduate of a four-year medical school must complete a residency in internal medicine, which usually lasts three years. Once general internal medicine residency training is complete, a physician may begin to practice internal medicine, or an internist may then choose to subspecialize in a particular area of internal medicine, for example, cardiology or infectious diseases. Subspecialty training, called fellowship, calls for two to three years of additional training.

Most general internists provide care for their patients in an ambulatory setting (office or outpatient), and follow their patients when hospitalized (inpatient setting). Other internists are known as "hospitalists" and care for patients only in the hospital.

The term internal medicine comes from the German term innere medizin, popularized in Germany in the late 19th century to describe physicians who combined the science of the laboratory with the care of patients. Many early 20th century American doctors studied medicine in Germany and brought this medical field to the United States. Thus, the name "internal medicine" was adopted. As with many words adopted from other languages, it unfortunately doesn't exactly fit an American meaning.

"You have the opportunity to learn so much about so many different aspects of medicine and really apply all of it to giving the best care possible to your patients." -- Tiffany Winstone, MD