Everyone who dreams of becoming a physician has a slightly different idea of what a doctor does. Some think of a surgeon completing a procedure. Others see a radiologist examining x-rays. Your vision is more relationship-oriented. You picture internists, pediatricians, and other primary care physicians working with the same patients year after year.
There’s no better time to be interested in pursuing primary care, because there’s a growing shortage of these doctors. And medical graduates are becoming less likely to choose a primary care career path. Research even indicates most internal medicine residents plan to subspecialize later on.
There’s unquestionably a certain amount of prestige tied to highly specialized fields, but don’t let that sway you. There are many doctors who are glad they chose a career in primary care. We reached out to some physicians to hear why they chose the career they did. Perhaps their responses will resonate with you.
6 Reasons to become a physician in a primary care specialty
If you’re already considering primary care, there’s a good chance you’ve thought about a few of these benefits. But some of them might surprise you.
1. Primary care physicians will always be in-demand
Spending behaviors typically reflect economic trends. Individuals often eat out less during times of financial hardship, for example. Health care is different since it’s a need. Dr. David Hatfield, Family Physician and owner of Hatfield Medical Group, has never had to worry about dwindling demand.
"There haven’t been all the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs that you see in other businesses."
“There haven’t been all the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs that you see in other businesses,” he explains. Dr. Hatfield also mentions that he didn’t experience the same strain his friends did during the economic downturn in 2008.
2. You can help patients avoid health issues later on
Much of the work primary care physicians do, regardless of their specific field, is about preventing problems before they begin. Dr. Crystal Bowe, Family Physician at CaroMont Health, actually pursued primary care for this reason. She lost a child to premature birth complications.
“I decided I wanted to dedicate my life providing care to families to help keep them healthy and prevent negative health outcomes,” she explains.
"I decided I wanted to dedicate my life providing care to families to help keep them healthy and prevent negative health outcomes."
Even when patients do find themselves diagnosed with a condition, doctors can help them manage it. A primary care physician could work with patients navigating diabetes, heart disease, and more. Doctors educate these patients to give them the tools they need to make positive changes.
“I get to help people make decisions to take control of their life and their health,” Dr. Bowe says.
3. Your schedule could be more predictable
Some specialists have very little idea of how their days will shake out. Critical care physicians, for instance, could end up working a longer shift than anticipated if a patient ends up taking a turn for the worse. Surgeons may be called in during off hours to conduct an emergency surgery. Primary care is generally more predictable.
“We have normal clinic hours and are open during the day,” Dr. Hatfield says. While he also takes call, Dr. Hatfield explains it’s mostly for things that are fairly routine.
4. Primary care provides you with a lot of variety
Primary care doctors, particularly family physicians, work with an incredibly diverse patient population. It’s incredibly appealing for those who crave variety.
“I want to be able to see the teenager,” Dr. Hatfield offers. “I want to be able to help the 47-year-old navigate their diabetes. And I want to help an 87-year-old navigate end-of-life decisions.”
"That kind of variety lit me up—the challenge of it."
Dr. Maiysha Clairborne, Family Physician and founder of Stress Free Mom MD, feels similarly. “That kind of variety lit me up—the challenge of it,” she explains.
Even within family medicine, you can hone in on a particular focus. Dr. Clairborne pursued a number of paths. She gained experience in urgent care, locums tenens (filling in for other physicians), and integrative medicine before settling on her current role coaching other physicians to help them shape their careers and avoid burnout.
5. You’ll never run out of opportunities to learn and grow
A desire to learn is important for every type of physician, because you’ll need to complete continuing education requirements to maintain your medical license. A commitment to education is even more crucial for the variety-packed primary care profession.
“I get to constantly learn, study, and find out new things,” Dr. Bowe says. “I see something new and different almost every day.”
“I see something new and different almost every day.”
There’s plenty to learn outside of clinical medicine as well. Physicians who go on to become practice owners need to develop robust business skills.
“Marketing, brand, slot utilization, revenue cycle management—all those different catchphrases that you hear in business apply to family practice,” Dr. Hatfield explains.
6. You’ll have the opportunity to form long-term relationships with patients
Primary care physicians are different from specialists in that they see the same patients for a long time, sometimes for decades. It’s one of the things many of them love about their job.
“For me, it’s really about the relationships with the patients and building a group that delivers quality, compassionate care to every patient every day,” Dr. Hatfield reflects.
Family physicians may even get to build relationships with an entire household.
"I'd get to watch the whole family grow.”
“I would see a pregnant mom, her baby, and her husband,” Dr. Clairborne explains. “Sometimes I’d even see her through another pregnancy. I'd get to watch the whole family grow.”
Should you pursue primary care?
While there are clearly many benefits to becoming a physician focused on primary care, it’s not for everyone. Some people are better suited to the field than others. The ability to assess situations and respond accordingly is essential.
“Reading a room is 90 percent of what I do,” Dr. Hatfield says. “And that’s a skill set that people have at an early age.”
"Reading a room is 90 percent of what I do."
It’s also important to understand some of the challenges. There’s a lot of demand for primary care physicians. While that’s great for job security, some do feel the pressure to see a substantial number of patients.
“Primary care physicians are perhaps at the highest risk for burnout,” Dr. Clairborne suggests. “I myself experienced burnout twice in my career.” She mentions that risk, and the potential to develop depression, inspired her to pivot to a role helping other physicians.
You may also be wondering about compensation. It’s true that specialists have a higher earning potential, but Dr. Bowe thinks there’s a bit of a misinformation there.
“One thing I think people should understand is that just because you specialize in primary care doesn't mean that you will be underpaid,” she says. “I work in a competitive market, and feel I am well compensated for the work I do.”
“I work in a competitive market, and feel I am well compensated for the work I do.”
In the end, only you can decide if it’s the right choice for you. Just know that many physicians are incredibly happy they pursued primary care. “I would pick it again in a minute,” Dr. Hatfield says.
What’s your motivation?
Becoming a physician working in primary care might not be for everyone, but you can see those who choose this route find a lot of satisfaction in career. For the right person, it’s a fascinating and rewarding role. It’s just an added perk that primary care physicians enjoy considerable job security.
If you think pursuing primary care could be right for you, it might be time to start digging into the details of what these doctors do. Learn more about what you can expect on the job by reading our article “What Does a Primary Care Physician Do? Exploring This High-Demand Medical Career.”
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