How to Become a Family Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a family doctor. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in family medicine.

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Do I Want to Be a Family Doctor?

Family doctors treat patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. These primary care providers tend to a variety of common ailments and injuries and might refer patients to specialists if more advanced treatment is needed. Family doctors counsel their patients on health topics, including the importance of exercise and a healthy diet. They also prescribe medications and administer vaccinations.

Family doctors earn good money, especially those who have their own private practices. The working hours of a family doctor are generally more consistent with regular business hours than most types of physicians; some overtime or weekend hours may be required. Family doctors will spend much of their time interacting with patients, resulting in hours on their feet and a potential risk of illness.

Job Requirements

Prospective family doctors must earn a medical degree, complete residency training and acquire a license. The following table shows the main qualifications for family doctors:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctoral*
Degree Field Medicine*
Licensure and Certification All states require a license**; certification is voluntary,** but some employers demand it***
Key Skills Manual agility, compassion, attention to detail**, critical thinking and written communications****
Computer Skills Proficiency with software including Acrendo Medical Software Family Practice EMR, Microsoft Office, eClinicalWorks****

Sources: *American Medical Association, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***Jobs posted by employers (October 2012), ****O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring family doctors must earn a bachelor's degree before applying to medical school. Students don't need to pursue a specific major as an undergraduate, but they should complete pre-medical courses including physics, biology, chemistry, English and math. Acceptance to medical school is very competitive, and a high undergraduate GPA is vital to gaining admittance.

Success Tip:

  • Get work experience at a doctor's office, medical facility or nursing home. Although not typically required, work experience in a medical setting is becoming an important factor in medical school admissions, according to the Family Medicine Interest Group. Applicants with volunteer experience or involvement in medical-related extracurricular activities at the undergraduate level also tend to impress medical school admissions committees.

Step 2: Take the Medical College Admission Test

Medical school applicants must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which medical schools use as one factor in choosing which candidates to admit. The MCAT, which gauges a student's ability to think critically and solve problems, is a multiple-choice exam covering biological and physical sciences and oral reasoning. The test also scores students on a writing sample.

Step 3: Earn a Medical Degree

Medical school typically requires four years to complete and awards a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. In the first two years, students focus on classroom and lab studies on topics including biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, ethics, pharmacology and infectious diseases. They also receive training in diagnosing medical conditions and examining patients as well as taking case histories.

During the final half of medical school, students treat patients at hospitals and clinics while supervised by licensed doctors. Medical students get a broad range of diagnostic experience by serving rotations in fields including family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery and obstetrics/gynecology.

Step 4: Finish Residency Training

After earning a medical degree, aspiring family doctors must continue their clinical education with a residency training program. Most family medicine residencies consist of three years of diagnosing and treating hospital and clinic patients under the observation of established doctors. Family medicine residency programs focus on the types of ailments and procedures that family doctors typically encounter in patients. Residents complete clinical rotations in areas including critical care, pediatrics, dermatology, sports medicine and cardiology. Residency training also includes didactic learning opportunities, such as seminars and conferences.

Step 5: Obtain a Medical License

All states mandate licensing for doctors, but requirements vary. Licensing requirements typically include graduating from an accredited medical program, finishing residency training and passing required licensing exams. Applicants for a medical license take either the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam.

Step 6: Get Certified in Family Medicine

Certification is an optional step that some physicians undertake to enhance their careers and job opportunities. Family doctors who have graduated from an accredited medical school, finished residency training, obtained a medical license and met testing requirements can get certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians or the American Board of Family Medicine. Certified family doctors must meet continuing education requirements to keep their certification.

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