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General practitioners, also called family practitioners, are doctors who treat people with common ailments, such as sinus infections, upper respiratory infections, and broken bones. They are the first point of contact for a patient seeking treatment and often serve as primary care physicians. Because of this role, general practitioners enjoy long-term relationships with patients. When confronted with a more serious illness or injury, a general practitioner will refer the patient to a specialist or hospital.
General practitioners fall into two categories: MDs, or Doctors of Medicine, and ODs, or Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine. Both MDs (also called allopathic physicians) and ODs treat patients using medicine, surgery, and other means, but ODs specialize on the body's musculoskeletal system, holistic patient care, and preventive medicine. More than half of ODs practice general pediatric, internal, or family medicine, and they are more likely than an MD to become primary care providers.
General practitioners must be able to work with a wide array of patients, exhibit a positive bedside manner, and make decisions quickly. Because a doctor's job can be emotionally challenging, mental stability and a passion for helping others are key. Physicians must have the mental and physical stamina for years of schooling and a demanding job.
In 2008, general practitioners earned a median annual wage of $157,250. Income varies by a doctor's geographic location, experience, and reputation, but generally self-employed general practitioners earn more than those working in clinics and hospitals. Self-employed physicians often run their own practice and must provide their own insurance and retirement benefits.
Training and Education
Education and career training for general practitioners is substantial, requiring 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, and 3 to 8 years of residency. Some medical schools offer 6-year programs that combine undergraduate work and medical school, but these programs are uncommon and extremely competitive. Most aspiring doctors go the traditional route, studying chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and English throughout 4 years of college. Many also volunteer at local clinics and hospitals to gain medical experience. Competition for medical school admission is intense, so strong grades, volunteer experience, and a high Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score are helpful. Some applicants already have advanced degrees. Once a student is admitted, the first 2 years of medical school consist of classroom work to master the basics of everything from anatomy to chemistry. The last 2 years are spent in supervised clinical rotations.
Residency is paid, on-the-job training that begins after graduation and generally lasts 2 to 6 years. Most residencies are in hospitals, and the exact length of time depends on a physician's specialty. Physicians must be licensed by their state in order to practice, and licensing requires graduation from an accredited medical school, 1 to 7 years of graduate medical training, and completion of a licensing exam. General practitioners must also pass a board exam in their specialty. MDs and ODs can spend up to 7 years in residency before achieving board certification. Board certification is granted after candidates pass a comprehensive exam in one of 24 board specialties. The training leading up to residency and certification can be extremely expensive, and over 80% of medical students take out loans to cover the cost.
General practitioners held approximately 106,000 jobs in 2008, with the majority working in private physicians' offices. Approximately 18,000 worked in hospitals, while others treated patients at outpatient care centers, government facilities, and colleges and universities.
Employment of general practitioners is expected to grow by 14% from 2006-2016, faster than the national average. This growth will be driven by an aging baby boomer population as well as advances in medical technology that expand treatment options. Employment opportunities will be especially strong in rural and low-income areas, where physicians are scarce.