When dealing with a health issue, you need a holistic approach. Every system affects every other system. If you have an ache in your knee, it can quickly turn into an aching hip and back. If you have a runny nose, you might find yourself with a sore throat and cough in short order. Diagnosing illnesses and handling treatments from a total-body perspective helps keep everything in balance.

Doctors of internal medicine, or internists, are the medical professionals of choice to work with for adult patients who need a diagnosis. Internists focus on the early detection and prevention of diseases that affect adults like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and more. By performing comprehensive diagnostic testing, an internist can see even the smallest sign of a looming health issue.

What is an Internist?

Internists work with adult patients to diagnose diseases and decide on a course of treatment. They often provide care similar to what you might expect from a general practitioner, but there are some differences. An internist does not work with pediatric patients or have any surgical specialties. Instead, they work solely with adults, using leading-edge diagnostic methods to screen for everything from thyroid and blood clotting disorders to respiratory illnesses. A general practitioner typically looks at specific symptoms to make a diagnosis, while an Internist uses all the data collected about a patient to create a total picture of current health and possible future problems.

Never confuse an internist with an intern. Interns are doctors in their first year of residency training. Internists are doctors who have completed their training in internal medicine. An internist works with you to diagnose and manage chronic health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure and other illnesses.

Reasons to See an Internist

Doctors of internal medicine try to ensure total-body health. They work with you to create a course of treatment to handle chronic illnesses like diabetes or acute onset conditions that require antibiotics or antivirals. Internists don't specialize in a particular disease, so they can balance health needs and treat several conditions that co-occur.

You might consider using an internist as your primary care physician. Internists offer an alternative to general or family practitioners. They work only with adult patients on the prevention, diagnosis, and management of diseases, making them ideal for adult patients who don't need specialist care.

Internist Qualifications

Like all doctors, internists go through several years of medical school, followed by a residency to gain hands-on experience. All told, the typical educational requirements for an internist include a bachelor's degree, medical degree, three to seven years in a residency program and state or jurisdictional licensing.

Internists don't require further specialization through a fellowship unless they intend to focus on a particular field, like gastroenterology.

Once education is complete, an internist can begin practicing medicine. The American College of Physicians also offers certification for doctors of internal medicine. If you see FACP after a doctor's name, it means he is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, the largest society of internists in the world.

You probably won't need a referral to see an internist, but you may need to make your internist your primary care physician. Before you decide to do so, talk things over with your current doctor and contact your insurance company. Explore the process of choosing a new doctor. Your current doctor and insurance company may be able to provide you with a recommendation and list of doctors in your network of healthcare providers.

Finding an Internist

When you are ready to switch your primary care provider to a doctor of internal medicine, start by running a few quick searches. The more options you have, the faster you can make a decision. Some offices have long wait times for appointments while others may not be taking new patients. You can use the CareDash physician search tool to research local doctors, write reviews, and discover malpractice claims. 

Questions for Your New Internist 

When you first start seeing an internist, be sure to have a few questions lined up. Doing so will help you and your doctor get on the same page regarding your treatment. Start with the basics.

  • What is my diagnosis? You'll want to know what your new doctor thinks is causing the problem as soon as possible.
  • How certain is the diagnosis? Early in the diagnostic process, it can be difficult to be sure about the source of a problem. Find out if there are several potential causes.
  • What tests will I need to confirm the diagnosis? Testing can be prolonged, expensive and painful. Talk through all the options with your doctor as you design the right course of treatment.
  • What is my outlook? Many chronic illnesses are manageable with the right treatment. Find out what potential side effects you could be facing and what to expect as you treat any conditions affecting your health.
  • How do I get in touch if something changes? You'll want to work with a doctor who has 24-hour access. Not all primary care physicians have an after-hours answering service. Find out what contact methods are available and whether you'll have to call during business hours.