General Practitioners: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 26, 2024
12 min read

A general practitioner focuses on your overall physical and mental health. They're often also called family doctors or internists, but there is a slight difference. 

General practitioners who aren’t certified by the American Board of Family Medicine can’t call themselves family doctors. For the same reason, general practitioners who don’t have a board certification in internal medicine can’t call themselves internists. That said, many family doctors and internists do practice as general practitioners, or GPs. 

GPs often develop an ongoing relationship with you, providing continuity of care. They treat common medical conditions and perform routine exams. They refer you to other medical services or doctors if you need urgent or specialized treatment.

GP doctors serve an important role in a much wider health care system. One of their main goals is to keep you healthy and out of the hospital. 

If you’re seeking treatment for a physical or mental health concern, a GP is likely your first point of contact. They help everyone from newborns to older adults. 

General practitioners provide acute, chronic, and follow-up care to their patients. Their duties include assessing you with a physical exam and a review of your medical history. From there, they may order more tests, recommend treatment, or connect you with a specialist. As part of emerging telehealth services around the world, they can provide a consultation over the phone or through a video call. 

In an emergency, a general practitioner can provide life-saving treatment until emergency services arrive. 

General practitioners work as a part of a larger team – including nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists, and others – to support your holistic (whole-body) care. They’re an essential part of preventive medicine and health education. 

The general practitioner’s duties are broad. Some examples of the care they provide include:

General practitioner education and training

Training to become a general practitioner takes from 7 to 15 years. Their curriculum is constantly updated to align with the latest medical advancements, research, public health concerns, and community needs. 

General practitioner education includes a broad scope of knowledge. The process includes: 

  • A bachelor’s degree – preferably in a relevant science
  • A satisfactory Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score
  • An average of 4 years in medical school
  • A 3- to 7-year residency, during which the doctor focuses on their specialty
  • Certification by the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of General Practice, or American Board of Internal Medicine

General practitioner vs. internal medicine

Doctors who practice general or family medicine and those who practice internal medicine (internists) are quite similar, but there are some differences.

First, GPs tend to care for patients from birth to older age – that is where the term "family doctor" came from. They traditionally cared for your whole family, and many can also care for women during pregnancy and childbirth. Internists care for either adults or children; they don’t mix. And they don't do obstetrics.

Both types of doctors provide primary care, which includes wellness and routine care, but internists have special training to help you if you have more than one medical problem or medical problems that are difficult to manage.

Is general practice the same as primary care?

General practice, or family practice, is the same as primary care. It's just a different term. The definition of a primary practice is one that provides first and continuing contact with patients. If your doctor works in a primary care practice, they will refer you to a specialist if you have specific requirements that need advanced knowledge, while they continue to manage your other needs. Your GP can also follow up with specialist recommendations. For example, if your GP thinks you may have multiple sclerosis, you would see a neurologist for an MS diagnosis and treatment. But you would go back to your GP or primary care doctor for other care, such as a sprained ankle, an ear infection, or other health issues not related to MS.

Family medicine practitioners

Family medicine practitioners, or family doctors, are general practitioners. They can care for all members of a family, from birth to end of life. They are certified by the American Board of Family Medicine.

Primary care providers

The term "primary care provider" covers doctors, like general practitioners, internists, geriatricians, and pediatricians who provide first-line health care – primary care – to patients. 


When comparing internists and general practitioners, keep in mind that an internist can be a general practitioner, but a general practitioner isn’t necessarily an internist. They can both be first-line health care professionals who provide primary care. But while general practitioners can care for entire families, internists specialize with either adults or children. Their training also includes caring for patients with more complex medical problems. Internists are board-certified in internal medicine.


Geriatricians are doctors who specialize in caring for aging adults. They can work as primary care physicians for older adults, or they can work in nursing facilities, hospitals, or other health care settings where their expertise is needed. There are three certifications that geriatricians can hold, awarded by the American Board of Family Medicine, American Board of Internal Medicine, and the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Inc.

Nurse practitioners

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses who have advanced education. They have at least a master’s degree in nursing, specializing as a nurse practitioner. In some states, NPs may only practice under a doctor’s supervision, but in many states and U.S. territories, they can work as primary care health care providers. They may practice on their own, with their own office or clinic, in:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada 
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Washington, DC
  • Wyoming

General practitioners can help you with many routine and serious conditions. There are several reasons to visit your GP, including: 

Wellness exams and preventive medicine

One of a GP's most important roles is performing routine screenings for health conditions. You may benefit from visiting a general practitioner to check for conditions, such as:

General practitioners can be key in the early detection of health conditions as well as preventive medicine. If you have a family history of chronic illness, are at risk of having a chronic condition, or are having symptoms, a screening by your general practitioner will benefit your health and peace of mind. 

Beyond this, general practitioners are a great resource for staying updated on all necessary immunizations and preventive care. 

Illness and Injury

An equally important duty of a GP is treating illness and injuries. Visit your general practitioner when you’re sick, injured, or if you have concerning symptoms.

They can use lab tests to diagnose illness, prescribe medication as treatment, assess your overall health, and connect you with a specialist if needed.

General practitioners can treat acute (short-term) conditions, such as:

In the case of a mental health crisis, your general practitioner can connect you with a mental health specialist.

Handling chronic conditions

General practitioners provide follow-up care for many chronic conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, asthmahigh blood pressure, and some mental health conditions. They can also provide care for many patients who were initially seen and diagnosed by a specialist. GPs can:

  • Provide regular checkups with appropriate testing, such as blood tests or X-rays
  • Write and adjust prescriptions as needed, and continue prescriptions as recommended by the specialists
  • Counsel patients about their chronic conditions, helping with lifestyle issues, such as smoking cessation and diet
  • Diagnose and treat other conditions that may come up along with other chronic diseases they may be treating

Specialist referral

General practitioners can diagnose and treat many illnesses and injuries, but sometimes, you may need more specialized care. Your GP will refer you to a specialist if you have a complex medical problem that is beyond their scope of practice or to guide them with your care.

If needed, you will stay with your specialist, who will continue to treat you for that particular problem. But you would return to your GP for other medical care, like regular checkups. If your problem doesn’t need continued monitoring by a specialist, your GP will get a report outlining your diagnosis and recommended treatment plan.

How do you choose between a family physician and general practitioner?

General practitioners handle primary care, so unless there is a specific reason why you want a family physician, you don’t need to choose one over the other. If you do want a doctor who specializes in family medicine, look to see if the doctor has a family medicine board certification. 

Can general practitioners deal with emergencies?

General practitioners who work in acute care or urgent care clinics can provide emergency care offered by those clinics. Unfortunately, a GP’s office isn’t usually equipped to handle serious emergencies like cardiac arrests. If a patient goes into cardiac arrest at a doctor’s office, the doctor would have to call 911 for emergency transport, while performing CPR and taking other life-saving steps while waiting for the ambulance. If you are having any signs of a serious emergency, like a heart attack or cardiac arrest, it's wiser to call an ambulance to take you to the closest emergency department.

A general practitioner appointment typically lasts around 15 minutes. Your GP may:

  • Assess your health
  • Discuss your medical history and symptoms
  • Run diagnostic tests
  • Develop a treatment plan
  • Advise you about ongoing lifestyle changes
  • Give you information about your condition and treatment
  • Prescribe medication 
  • Refer you to a specialist or arrange a follow-up appointment, if needed

The best appointments with your doctor are the ones where you arrive prepared, and that means having your questions ready. You can write them down if you’re concerned you might forget them.

There are many questions you can ask. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Should I have any screening tests, and if so, how often?
  • How often should I have a wellness checkup?
  • Did you find anything concerning, like an increase in blood pressure? If so, what can I do about it?
  • Should I make any lifestyle changes? If so, what?
  • If there is a health problem, what is it called and how common is it?
  • Can you explain it to me in a way I can understand?
  • What kind of treatments will I have to have?
  • What are the names and doses for the medications you’re prescribing, and what do they do? What side effects should I watch for, and when should I start feeling the effects? 
  • When should I see the doctor again to see if the treatment is working?
  • What happens if I don’t take the treatment as recommended?
  • How will I know if things are getting worse?

Finding a general practitioner can take some time because there is a shortage of doctors in the U.S. Unfortunately, it’s worse in some states than others. These include:

  • Alaska
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Washington

Regardless of where you live, there are several ways you can look for a GP. You can start by asking friends, family, and co-workers for recommendations. You can also:

  • Call your insurance company for a list of GPs in your area who are part of your plan’s network.
  • If you’re searching for a new doctor because you’re moving, ask your current GP’s office if they have any recommendations for your new location. If your own doctor is moving or retiring, ask if they have any recommendations for someone in your area.
  • Look online with the American Medical Association’s Doctor Finder website or DocInfoMedicare also has a search site for you to find a doctor.

Aside from finding a GP, there are issues you must ask about or consider before choosing one:

  • Is the doctor in-network, or part of my insurance plan? 
  • Is the doctor taking new patients?
  • Does the doctor practice alone or in a group?
  • How long do I have to wait for an appointment?
  • How long do the appointments usually last?
  • If I have to get blood tests or X-rays, do I need to go elsewhere or can that be done at the office?
  • Who do I contact if the doctor is away or unavailable?
  • What are the office hours, and what happens if I need to speak with the doctor outside of office hours?
  • Can I make virtual/telemedicine appointments?
  • What is the cancellation policy if I can’t make my appointment or the problem goes away?
  • How communicative is the office’s staff and front desk? Is communication only by phone, or can I use email?
  • How do I make an appointment?
  • What do I do if something is urgent?
  • Is the doctor affiliated with a hospital? Which one?

More specific questions for individual cases could include:

  • Can someone in the office speak my language or communicate with me (in cases of hearing impairment)?
  • Is the office accepting of people from all walks of life?
  • Is the doctor experienced in my health needs?
  • Does the doctor have any special board certifications?

General practitioners are primary care health care professionals. They are the doctors you see for wellness checkups and to help you with most of your health care needs. Family doctors and internists can also be general practitioners. If your health condition is beyond your GP’s scope or you need more specialized treatment, your GP will refer you to a specialist. But you remain your GP's patient for all other health care needs. 

What is the difference between a specialist doctor and a general practitioner?

General practitioners are primary care doctors who care for their patients’ health and wellness overall. Specialists choose to specialize in specific parts of medicine, such as neurology, orthopedics, or dermatology. If a GP’s patient has an issue that needs a specialist’s attention, the GP will refer the patient to the specialist.

Is MBBS a general practitioner?

An MBBS stands for Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. Medical schools based on the United Kingdom medical education system give their graduates the MBBS rather than MD, or medical doctor. A doctor with an MBBS may practice as a general practitioner.

What is another name for a general practitioner?

General practitioners (GPs) can also be called primary care physicians. Some may be family doctors or internists, but they must have the proper board accreditation to use those designations.

What does a general practitioner role describe?

A general practitioner is described as a doctor who provides wellness and health care to patients. They can help counsel patients on disease and injury prevention, recommend screening tests, run diagnostic tests, and diagnose and treat many illnesses and conditions. Some people describe their role as a gatekeeper because they also refer patients to specialists if they need more advanced care than the GP can provide.