What is an Internist?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 15, 2023
4 min read

An internist is a doctor of internal medicine. 

They’re doctors who specialize in the internal organs and systems of the body, but they are not limited to those areas. They can also give preventive care and treat anything from skin rashes to ear infections. They only treat adults and they aren’t surgeons.

When choosing a primary care physician (PCP), you may opt for an internist or a family physician. Both can treat a wide spectrum of conditions. Internists have a great depth of knowledge about adult health issues. Family physicians treat children as well as adults, so they must have a broader base of knowledge.

Many internists treat people for a wide variety of illnesses. They’re called general internists, and they typically see people in their office. They manage chronic illnesses and often they have long-lasting relationships with their patients.

Some internists opt for a subspecialty, such as cardiology or gastroenterology. They are still internists, but they are also specialists in their chosen area, too. To do this, they may undergo three or more years of training.

Some internists only see hospital patients. Others may work in different care settings, such as rehabilitation facilities or centers for hospice care. Some go into research, and others choose to become administrators. 

To be internists, you first need to have a four-year undergraduate degree. You’ll also need to  complete:

  • Medical school, usually taking four years
  • A three-year residency in internal medicine

You’ll then need to pass an exam to become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

An internist who chooses a subspecialty will need from one to four more years of education. Some popular areas of specialization for internists were cardiology, pulmonary disease, oncology, critical care, and hematology.  

If you’ve chosen an internist as your primary care physician, you'll see your internist for routine care. If you haven’t chosen one as your PCP, you may still see an internist for certain problems.

Here are some reasons you might see a general internist:

Abdominal Pain

Pain in the abdomen can have a variety of causes. It could be from something relatively minor, such as a muscle strain or a stomach virus. More serious illnesses, such as acute appendicitis and several cancers, also cause abdominal pain. You should go to the emergency room for acute pain or if your abdomen is very tender to the touch. For less severe pain, seeing an internist is a good way to start. An internist can help you decide whether your pain is gastrointestinal in nature or caused by something else.  

Chest Pain

Chest pain doesn't always mean you are having a heart attack. It can be caused by problems in the lungs or gastrointestinal system. It could be anxiety or acid reflux. Of course, you should call 911 if you are having symptoms of a heart attack. But for different, less severe chest pain, an internist may be able to diagnose your problem. 

What will happen when you go to an internist will depend upon your reason for going. Still, you can probably expect these steps in care.

The doctor will check your vital signs. You’ll go over your medical history and your list of medications. Your internist will ask about your symptoms and your general state of health.  The doctor will usually give you a physical exam. The doctor wants to get a complete picture of your health. 

As part of your physical exam, your an internist typically will: 

  • Look at your general appearance, including your posture and how you move
  • Listen to your heart, checking for a heart murmur, irregular heartbeat, or other unusual sounds
  • Listen to your breathing, checking for crackles, wheezing, or shortness of breath
  • Look at your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat
  • Check your skin and nails.

For wellness checks, the doctor may order screening tests, such as a lipid panel or bone density test. For specific problems, the doctor will order the appropriate test, whether it be a simple urinalysis or something more complex, like an imaging test. You may be asked to come back for a follow-up visit, or your doctor may advise that you see a different specialist.

If you see other specialists, your internist may consult with your other doctors, coordinate your care, and check for medication interactions. The best internists are proactive and may counsel you on lifestyle changes and steps that you can take to avoid problems in the future. They’ll also  check for mental health problems such as depression