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Everything you always wanted to know about Family Medicine (but were afraid to ask)

Way back in the early 2000’s, family medicine in Canada was facing a crisis. The government had reduced residency positions across the country, the remuneration was flawed, and the perception of the specialty itself was negative.

As a result, in 2003, the percentage of students going into family medicine hit an all-time low: 23%. In the ensuing years, the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC), as part of a team effort across all sectors, was able to curb the trend by implementing family medicine interest groups in every Canadian medical school, working to improve how family doctors get paid, and establishing family medicine as a recognized medical specialty.

By 2015, 38.5% of students went into family medicine. While the specialty’s reputation has been repaired, med students may still have a lot of questions about a career in family medicine.

So, how will you know if family medicine is right for you? Here’s a little primer to help!

What do family physicians actually do?

Great question! The College of Family Physicians of Canada describes it like this: “Working together, family physicians provide a system of front-line health care that is accessible, high-quality, comprehensive, and continuous.”

A family physician is the first point of contact for their patient’s health concerns—and those patients represent a variety of ages, social backgrounds, and health conditions. That means a family physician’s day-to-day can be incredibly diverse. Because they not only treat the immediate needs of their patients, they must also help them navigate the wider health care system, from coordinating with other specialists to overseeing hospital care, while also prioritizing and ensuring access to these services.

Family medicine is about a lot more than office-based practice and includes home, hospital and long-term care, along with opportunities to be engaged in leadership, scholarship and advocacy.

Why do people choose family medicine?

The reasons for choosing family medicine are as diverse and personal as the reasons they wear Stan Smiths, get bangs, hate sushi, or watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. As with everything, it comes down to personal preference, ambition, life goals—and everything else that makes you you.

Some students are excited by the sheer scope of everything they’ll need to learn and do. As a family physician, you’ll be assessing and treating newborns and elderly people alike, and to do that your range of knowledge and skills has to be incredibly vast.

Other students might have an entrepreneurial spirit, and like the idea of building and refining a practice, or working as part of a team in a Patient’s Medical Home – the CFPC’s model of delivering comprehensive and coordinated care for patients.

Many students are attracted to the versatility of a career that can grow and adapt with them. They might want to build more stable careers around their family and community – family medicine supports work-life integration and can be tailored to your stage of life and stage of practice. Even the residency period can be friendlier to manage than other specialties due to its shorter length (2 years).

You may also be attracted to the idea of building long-term relationships and caring for patients across their entire lifespan. For anyone who wants to work in a rural setting, family medicine is often the clearest path (and, for those with an adventurous spirit, also opens up more options to work locums).

Why do people avoid family medicine?

There are myriad reasons that family medicine might not be right for you, and they’re all very personal. One of the biggest questions students often ask is about the compensation. Family medicine pays a little less than most other specialties. Salaries do vary by province, however, and family medicine is certainly not the lowest paid medical specialty you can choose.

The time constraints that many family physicians must face – trying to see as many as five patients per hour for ten minutes at a time – can frighten a lot of med students away. As well, the administrative requirements associated with running a family practice can be challenging (though the overhead costs of running a practice is something that many physicians, not just family doctors, have to deal with).

The CFPC hosts a popular committee for family doctors in their first five years of practice and provides numerous resources about learning how to build a practice, the billing process, and all the other new requirements that early career family physicians face. It also hosts a Facebook page with great peer support to share questions and learn from each other’s experiences.

What’s special about family medicine?

Family physicians are specialists at being generalists. This means that they have a lot to offer beyond patient care; they have a broad set of skills, are highly adaptable, and, unlike some other specialties that can be more narrowly focused, family medicine encompasses a whole spectrum of care including biological, clinical, and behavioural sciences. When you look at it that way, there’s really nothing else like it.

No other physician develops the kind of deep, nurturing relationship with patients that a family doctor does. Research shows that having a family doctor results in patients living longer, healthier lives. As a family physician, you get to see firsthand, over time, how you’re helping the people in your community live longer, healthier lives. 

In the end, all family physicians, regardless of the specific nature of their practice, embody a humanist approach that helps to uphold and improve the compassion, responsiveness, integrity, and quality of the health care system. And that’s a pretty cool legacy to be a part of.

Check out the links below to learn more:

Family Medicine: Professional Profile

Strengthening the Future of Family Medicine