If you are considering a career in medicine, you may feel excited, yet slightly overwhelmed, about the many options available for your career path. One of the largest medical fields available is internal medicine, with over 200,000 practicing internists currently working in the United States. Internal medicine is an active community, with internal medicine doctors working in many different job titles and affecting change in the healthcare industry from policy creation all the way down to the individual patient. 

Some of the most commonly asked questions about this field of medicine, include: 

  • What is an internist doctor?
  • What does an internist do?
  • What does an internist treat?

In this article, we will provide answers to these common questions and provide additional information about the practice of internal medicine to help aspiring physicians decide if they should practice internal medicine. 

What is Internal Medicine?

Internal medicine is a medical specialty focused on identifying and treating diseases and other issues inside the body that typically affect multiple internal organs. The study of internal medicine is rooted in a combination of medical disciplines, including pathology (the study of diseases), physiology (the study of bodily functions), and bacteriology (the study of bacteria). By combining this expertise together, doctors specializing in internal medicine can more readily treat a broad range of health conditions that manifest in different ways, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or infections.

Internal Medicine vs Family Medicine

woman speaking to doctor about xrays

Internal medicine is often confused with family practice medicine. Although both disciplines are focused on the treatment and prevention of a variety of diseases in patients, they are distinct. The biggest difference is that an internal medicine physician will only treat adults, while family medicine doctors may treat patients of any age.

What is an Internist Doctor?

An internist is a doctor who practices internal medicine. While this definition may seem simplistic, the job of an internist is always evolving as new diseases are discovered and new medicines and treatments for those diseases come on the market. Internists must stay current with the latest information available on hundreds of different conditions and medications. Internists are part caregivers, part researchers, part investigators, and part doctors.

Medical School Education

Students who want to become internal medicine physicians can expect a similar educational pathway to doctors in other fields. All doctors must first complete an accredited medical school training program, followed by an average of 3 years in a general residency program. Many internists who decide to specialize will complete an additional 1-2 years of residency in their chosen specialization. During this training, residents are eligible to sit before the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) for a certification process where they demonstrate their skills to become fully licensed and certified internists.

Subspecialty Training

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) officially recognizes over 20 subspecialties of internal medicine. Internists in training can complete additional residency training in any of the following areas:

  • Addiction Medicine – the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of substance use disorders (SUDs) and other addictive behaviors
  • Adult Congenital Heart Disease (ACHD) – ACHD specialists are trained to diagnose and manage the unique medical and psychosocial issues that can arise in adults who were born with congenital heart defects
  • Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Cardiology – the evaluation and management of care for patients with advanced heart failure who may require advanced therapies, such as heart transplantation or mechanical circulatory support
  • Cardiovascular Disease Care – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the heart
  • Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology – the diagnosis, management and treatment of a wide range of arrhythmias
  • Clinical Informatics – the use of information technology and data analytics to improve patient care and healthcare delivery
  • Critical Care – care for patients who are critically ill, usually involving some type of life support
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting the endocrine system, such as diabetes or hormonal diseases
  • Gastroenterology – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract
  • Geriatric Medicine – care for elderly patients
  • Hematology – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the blood and blood-forming organs
  • Hospice and Palliative Medicine – a comprehensive approach to the diverse care needs of patients with serious, life-limiting illnesses with the overarching goal to improve quality of life
  • Infectious Disease – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases caused by microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses
  • Pediatric Internal Medicine – focuses on the care of children and adolescents with complex medical conditions. 
  • Interventional Cardiology – the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases using minimally invasive procedures.
  • Medical Oncology – the diagnosis and treatment of tumors (both malignant and benign)
  • Nephrology – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the kidneys
  • Pulmonary / Respiratory Medicine – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving the lungs and respiratory system
  • Rheumatology – the diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting joints, muscles, and bones
  • Sleep Medicine – the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders.
  • Transplant Hepatology – the evaluation and management of patients before and after liver transplantation, as well as managing complications that may arise during the transplantation process.

What Does an Internal Medicine Doctor Do?

Internal medicine doctors care for adult patients with a variety of internal diseases. In addition to treating these diseases, internists will work with patients and support primary care physicians to control and improve quality of life issues that can help with disease prevention and overall health promotion. Internal medicine doctors will also work with patients to educate them about early warning signs of these diseases and provide appropriate steps for prevention. Internists will also make referrals to other physicians, write prescriptions, train physician’s assistants, or do any tasks that any other physician would do.

internist in training

Depending on their background, internists may also split their time between seeing patients and conducting research and training in their chosen specialization. Internal medicine is a dynamic and ever-evolving field, and internists can help advance the field of medicine by sharing their knowledge and experience with the medical community.

Students exploring internal medicine as a long-term career option should feel confident about their job prospects. Jobs available in internal medicine are growing at approximately 7% per year – faster than the national average – and are projected to continue doing so until 2028. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most internists can expect to work in physicians’ offices or hospitals, with a significant number of positions also available at medical schools and outpatient care centers.

Students in medical school can also improve their job prospects by choosing specialties that are highly in demand. The National Center for Health Workforce Analysis projects a significant shortage of physicians specializing in cardiology, gastroenterology, oncology, and pulmonology by the year 2025. Internists who specialize in one of these fields will be in demand and have improved job security for the next several years.

The Future of Internal Medicine

Students who choose a career in internal medicine should be prepared for a challenging, yet rewarding career. As improvements to healthcare help patients live longer and provide doctors with new and innovative ways of treating illnesses, internal medicine physicians will be in even higher demand. By understanding the career pathways and available subspecialties, students can prepare for a lifelong career in internal medicine.

Looking to Start a Career in Internal Medicine? 

The American University of Antigua College of Medicine (AUA) is a fully accredited international medical school dedicated to providing an academic experience of the highest quality. Learn more about our MD program here.