General internists are physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of internal organs. They mostly work with adults who have developed simple or complex problems with the internal organs, which include the stomach, kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. Internists use a wide variety of diagnostic techniques to treat their patients. They may hospitalize their patients or they may rely on medication for treatment. They are usually considered primary care specialists like general practitioners. Other specialists and general practitioners refer patients to them and they may then refer those patients to other specialists.
There are two types of general internists: those who are M.D.s, or Doctors of Medicine, sometimes referred to as allopathic physicians; and those who are O.D.s, or Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine. In their practices, both M.D.s and O.D.s utilize drugs, surgery, and all other treatment options. However, O.D.s focus more on the body’s muscoloskeletal system, preventive medicine, and holistic patient care. O.D.s are more likely than M.D.s to be primary care specialists, with over 50% of O.D.s practicing general of family medicine, general internal medicine, or general pediatrics.
General internists must be emotionally stable and have the ability to make crucial decisions quickly. They should have a good bedside manner, self-motivation, and a strong desire to help others. They need to have good mental and physical stamina to handle the pressure and dedication required in medical education and practice.
In 2002, general internists earned a median annual salary of $155,530. Self-employed general internists usually have higher earnings than those who are salaried. Earnings vary greatly and depend on a number of factors, including experience, geographic region, hours worked, skill, personality, and professional reputation. General internists who are self-employed are responsible for providing their own health insurance and retirement.
Training and Education
Physicians specializing in general internal medicine must spend a substantial number of years completing education and training requirements, including 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, and 3 to 8 years of residency. Certain medical schools offer a program that combines undergraduate and medical study and can be completed in only 6 years. Undergraduate students in premedical study are required to complete courses in physics, biology, mathematics, English, and inorganic and organic chemistry. They also complete courses in the humanities and social sciences and some volunteer at local hospitals or clinics to gain experience. Most applicants for medical school have a bachelor’s degree, and many also have earned more advanced degrees. Competition for admission to medical school is very high. The first 2 years of medical school cover basics from anatomy to microbiology, and the second 2 years are spent working in hospitals and clinics under the supervision of physicians.
After graduation from medical school, physicians begin paid, on-the-job training known as a residency. Most residencies are in hospitals and last between 2 and 6 years. All States require physicians to be licensed. Licenses are given to physicians who graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete 1 to 7 years of graduate medical education. M.D.s and D.O.s may spend up to 7 years in residency training to qualify for board certification in a specialty. Board certification is granted after candidates pass a final examination in one of 24 board specialties. More than 80% of medical students borrow money to pay for their costly training.
In 2002, physicians and surgeons, of which general internists are a subgroup, held about 583,000 jobs. About 50% worked in office-based practice, and almost 25% worked in hospitals.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of general internists is expected to increase about as fast as the average. The health services industries will continue to expand. Demand for this occupation will stem largely from a growing and aging population. Opportunities will be best in rural and low-income areas, due to the lower concentration of physicians practicing in these areas.
For more information on becoming a general internist, please see our directory of schools offering Medical Training