What Is a General Practitioner?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
3 min read

Also called family doctors or internists, general practitioners 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.

A general practitioner focuses on your overall health: physical and mental. They serve an important role in a much wider healthcare 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 general practitioner is likely your first point of contact. They help everyone from newborns to older adults. 

General practitioner duties include assessing you with a physical exam and a review of your medical history. From there, they may order additional 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 preventative medicine and health education. 

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


●Routine exams

●Mental health checks

Chronic (long-term) illness care 

●References to specialists

●Follow-up care 

Training to become a general practitioner takes from seven 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 four years in medical school
  • A three- to seven-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 practitioners can help you with many routine and serious conditions. There are several reasons to visit your general practitioner, including: 

Wellness Exams and Preventative Medicine

One of the general practitioner’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 instrumental in the early detection of health conditions as well as preventative medicine. If you have a family history of chronic illness, are at-risk for a chronic condition, or are experiencing 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 preventative care. 

Urgent Care for Illness or Injury

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

A general practitioner 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.

Chronic Conditions

General practitioners can provide prescriptions, lifestyle recommendations, and follow-up care for chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, and some mental health conditions. 

A general practitioner appointment typically lasts 10 to 30 minutes. Your general practitioner 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 thorough information about your condition and treatment
  • Prescribe medication 
  • Refer you to a specialist or arrange a follow-up appointment