General Practitioner Overview, Education & Training

A general practitioner, also called a GP or generalist, is a physician who does not specialize in one particular area of medicine. GPs provide routine health care (e.g., physical examinations, immunizations) and assess and treat many different conditions, including illnesses and injuries. They often have regular, long-term patients and provide ongoing medical care to both male and female patients in all age groups.

People who are seeking medical care usually contact a general practitioner first. When a patient develops a serious condition, a general practitioner may refer him or her to a specialist. A specialist is a physician who has additional training and expertise in a specific area of medicine (e.g., urology, cardiology, oncology, neurology).

General practitioners often work in private offices or clinics. In many cases, they are assisted by a small staff of nurses and administrators. General practitioners also may be part of a large group practice or a health maintenance organization (HMO).

GP Education and Training

To become a general practitioner, students must complete a 4-year undergraduate program, a 4-year medical program, and a 1- to 2-year residency program. Pre-med undergraduate programs include courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry (organic and inorganic), mathematics, physics, and physiology. Students also study social sciences and the humanities (e.g., sociology, psychology, anthropology, foreign language, literature).

Students who are interested in the health care profession often volunteer in local clinics or hospitals while they are working on their undergraduate degree (e.g., Bachelor's of Science). Some students attain an advanced degree (e.g., Master's) before applying to medical school.

Admission to medical school is very competitive. Applicants must submit school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and an admissions essay. They also must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and interview with the admissions committee. In addition to the student’s academic record, his or her character, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities (e.g., community organizations, school clubs, volunteer work) also are considered.

During the first 2 years of medical school, students focus on the following courses:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Law as it pertains to medicine
  • Medical ethics
  • Microbiology
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology

Med students also learn how to take a patient medical history and how to perform a physical examination and diagnostic tests.

During the final 2 years of medical school, students work under the supervision of licensed physicians in hospitals and clinics. Third- and fourth-year med students learn how to provide comprehensive medical care. Their training includes rotations in several different areas of medicine (e.g., internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery). Following graduation from an accredited medical school, physicians with a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree enter a graduate medical education program called a residency. Residency involves on-the-job training, usually in a hospital or clinic. Many physicians with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree serve a 1-year internship before becoming a resident. Residency for a general practitioner is about 2 years.

After completing his or her residency, the general practitioner must take and pass a licensing examination. Every state, as well as the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories, require physicians to be licensed.

Board Certification for General Practitioners

General practitioners may decide to pursue board certification. These physicians often specialize in family medicine or internal medicine. After completing an additional 3 years of training and successfully passing a written examination, family practitioners may be certified by the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM) and internists may be certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM).

Family practitioners are specially trained to diagnose and treat just about any condition. Their training focuses on complete health care for the entire family and includes pediatrics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, geriatrics, preventative medicine, and behavioral science. Internists specialize in the medical treatment of adults. Family physicians and internists refer patients to other specialists and community resources when appropriate.

To maintain board certification, family practitioners and internists must regularly participate in continuing medical education (CME) programs (e.g., an average of 50 hours per year) and must pass a written examination in their specialty. Specialty boards also review the physician’s proficiency in a number of areas, including, professionalism, medical expertise, practice performance, self assessment, and lifelong learning.

Family practitioners and internists may receive additional training and pass an additional examination in order to subspecialize. Family medicine subspecialties include adolescent medicine, geriatric medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, sleep medicine, and sports medicine. Internal medicine subspecialties include allergy and immunology, cardiology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, hematology, infectious disease, nephrology, medical oncology, pulmonology, and rheumatology.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 21 Oct 2008

Last Modified: 02 Dec 2011