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How to Become a Family Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Dec 13, 2019

Learn how to become a family doctor. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in family medicine.

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Should I Become a Family Doctor?

Family doctors are primary care physicians who care for patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. They treat a variety of common ailments and injuries and might refer patients to specialists if more advanced treatment is needed. Family doctors counsel their patients on health topics, including the importance of preventive medicine, exercise and a healthy diet. They also prescribe medications and administer vaccinations.

The working hours for family doctors are generally consistent with regular business hours. These highly trained professionals enjoy better-than-average incomes. However, the education and training required to enter this field is long and expensive. Some overtime or weekend hours might be required. Family doctors spend much of their time interacting with patients, resulting in hours on their feet and a risk of illness.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctoral (M.D. or D.O.)
Degree Field Medicine
Training 3-4 year residency
Licensure and Certification License required to practice medicine; certification in family medicine may be required
Key Skills Extensive medical knowledge; compassion; attention to detail; critical thinking and good verbal and written communication skills; use of medical software
Salary $184,390 (2015 median for family and general practitioners)

Sources: American Medical Association, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May, 2014), O*NET OnLine, PayScale.com

Family doctors have doctoral degrees in medicine and state-mandated licenses. They are expected to be detail-oriented and compassionate, with extensive medical knowledge and strong verbal and written communication skills. They need to have knowledge of medical software and skills in critical thinking. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for family and general practitioners, which include family doctors, was $184,390 in 2015.

Steps to Become a Family Doctor

What steps do I need to take to become a family doctor?

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring family doctors must earn a bachelor's degree before applying to medical school. Students don't need to pursue a specific major as an undergraduate, but they should complete pre-medical courses including physics, biology, chemistry, English and math. Acceptance to medical school is very competitive, and a high undergraduate GPA is vital to gaining admittance.

While you're in college, it's a good idea to get work experience at a doctor's office, medical facility or nursing home. Although not typically required, work experience in a medical setting is becoming an important factor in medical school admissions, according to the Family Medicine Interest Group. Applicants with volunteer experience or involvement in medical-related extracurricular activities at the undergraduate level also tend to impress medical school admissions committees.

Step 2: Take the Medical College Admission Test

Medical school applicants must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which medical schools use as one factor in deciding which candidates to admit. The MCAT gauges a student's ability to think critically and solve problems. It is a multiple-choice exam covering the biological and physical sciences and reasoning ability. The test also scores students on a writing sample.

Step 3: Earn a Medical Degree

Medical school typically requires four years to complete and awards Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degrees. In the first two years, students focus on classroom and lab studies in areas like biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, ethics, pharmacology and infectious diseases. They also receive training in diagnosing medical conditions and examining patients as well as taking case histories.

During the final half of medical school, students enter internships during which they treat patients at hospitals and clinics while supervised by licensed doctors. During internship and residency, work hours can be brutal and shifts may be long, often involving night shift work. Medical students get a broad range of diagnostic experience by serving rotations in fields including family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery and obstetrics/gynecology.

Step 4: Finish Residency Training

After earning a medical degree, aspiring family doctors must continue their clinical education with a residency training program. Most family medicine residencies consist of three years of diagnosing and treating hospital and clinic patients under the observation of established doctors. Family medicine residency programs focus on the types of ailments and procedures that family doctors typically encounter in patients. Residents complete clinical rotations in areas including critical care, pediatrics, dermatology, sports medicine and cardiology. Residency training also includes didactic learning opportunities, such as seminars and conferences.

Step 5: Obtain a Medical License

All states mandate licensing for doctors, but requirements vary. Licensing requirements typically include graduating from an accredited medical program, finishing residency training and passing required licensing exams. Applicants for a medical license take either the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam.

Step 6: Advance Your Career By Becoming Certified in Family Medicine

Certification is an optional step that some physicians undertake to enhance their careers and job opportunities. Family doctors who have graduated from an accredited medical school, finished residency training, obtained a medical license and met testing requirements can get certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians or the American Board of Family Medicine. Certified family doctors must meet continuing education requirements to keep their certification.

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