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The Real Poop

When deciding to pursue a career in medicine, there are so many options. You can be a surgeon and make solid money but have enormous stress; you can be a podiatrist but never be able to look at a pair of feet the same way again; you can be a dentist but hear the sound of a drill in your nightmares ("is it safe?" and all that…); or you can just throw up your hands, say "dash it all!', and become a general practitioner (after you’ve been promoted up the ranks from colonel).

A general practitioner, or general physician, specializes in exactly what the name implies—absolutely nothing. That is to say, they are a jack of all maladies, master of none. A general practitioner is whom you see when you are feeling a wee bit fluish or when a mysterious bruise has suddenly appeared on your right thigh, or when you're merely feeling out of whack and are sure that there must be something wrong with you. These are the peeps with enough general medical expertise to be able to patch you up for most every run-of-the-mill ailment, and who can refer you to the right people if your condition requires the care of a specialist. 

This is a hard gig, especially in the age of HMOs. Frequently, patients are required to see their general practitioner, who is the gatekeeper between them and the specialist they really need. The more medicine is treated as a business, the more the general practitioner is measured against patients seen per hour and less like the Dr. House you see on television. In the world of prestige, general practitioners are often at the bottom of the totem pole. That…and you have to be on call 24/7.

However, if you manage a private practice (as opposed to being employed by a hospital or other facility, or acting as a consultant to a medical institution or insurance company) or live in a stable area, you will grow a large and steady bank of regular patients with whom you may bond and grow to know rather than just treating a bunch of patients once and then sending them out the door, never to be heard from again. You are the kindly family doctor who has been a loyal and reliable physician for three generations. Some of your patients even call you "Uncle Bernie." Which is strange, since your name is Candace. Better send them to a psychiatric specialist.

Honestly, that quality of familiarity is what separates most general practitioners from the doctors who are making more money and garnering more prestige. It is the reason you might choose to sacrifice that other stuff. You get to have a personal relationship with your clients. It is less stressful than being a surgeon, and less depressing than being an oncologist. And while it may be a specialist who actually administers some life-saving course of medical action to a patient of yours, you are the one who picked up on the warning signs and sent them off in the right direction. You deserve at least half-credit for that one. 

In order to become a general practitioner, you need to become board certified after getting your Ph.D. To do so, you'll need to complete a residency, get licensed, and pass a written test. Even after you are certified, there are additional annual requirements you will be asked to fulfill to maintain that status. You will have to participate in continuing education courses, and will likely be subjected to further testing. The American Board of Family Medicine wants to make sure you retain all the information in that great big brain of yours; they know there's a ton of it swimming around in there, and they want to be assured that none of it has drowned in your first few years of practice.

Sadly, interest in pursuing a career as a general practitioner has been waning in recent years. The problem is that so much debt is racked up in medical school; when it comes time to decide which route a graduating student is going to take, it is much more tempting to go into a specialized field that will more quickly and easily pay off that accumulated debt. Understandable, but unfortunate. So if you've gotten a multi-million dollar inheritance and just want to become a doctor purely to help people (which should really be your motivation in the first place), then we strongly encourage you to become a general practitioner. And we're sure there are plenty of people with multi-million dollar inheritances reading this.