Family Medicine

Pediatrician vs. Family Doctor: Which Is Right for Your Family?

From annual sports physicals to playground injuries, kids tend to go to the doctor much more frequently than adults. When you’re making that many trips to the doctor’s office, it’s especially important to see a physician that both you and your child feel comfortable with. 

As you’re trying to decide on the best doctor for your child, you may be confused about the difference between a pediatrician and a family doctor. Both accept children as patients, so how are they different? Is one better than the other? 

Family medicine specialist Dr. Beth Herman shares some insight into the differences between pediatricians and family doctors to help you make the right choice for your family.

Pediatrician vs family doctor: what’s the difference? 

The biggest difference between a pediatrician and a family doctor is the age of the patients they treat.

Pediatricians typically only see patients who are under 18 years old, though some will see patients up to 21 years of age.

Family doctors may see patients of any age or may only see patients who are above a certain age. For example, Dr. Herman accepts patients who are 4 years of age or older.

Both pediatricians and family doctors must complete four years of medical school and a three-year residency (training) in their chosen specialty. For pediatricians, they complete a residency in pediatrics. For family doctors, they complete a residency in family medicine, which includes some pediatric training, but also adult medicine and geriatrics (elderly patient care). 

Pediatricians are then certified by the American Board of Pediatrics to be licensed to practice medicine. Similarly, family doctors are certified by the American Board of Family Medicine.

While both types of doctors are fully equipped to care for and treat patients, pediatricians specialize in children and have more in-depth knowledge about the growth, development, and behavior of small kids. On the other hand, family doctors are equipped to care for a patient throughout their entire adult life.

When should your child see a pediatrician?

Parents should take their infants to see a pediatrician from birth. A good relationship with a pediatrician is vital to ensuring your baby is healthy and hitting key developmental milestones. 

Children may see a pediatrician for as long as they are young enough to qualify for care. Because some family doctors do not see patients under a certain age, it’s common for a child to see a pediatrician well past infancy.

There are some circumstances where it’s beneficial to stay with a pediatrician even once your child becomes old enough to start seeing a family doctor. You should continue seeing a pediatrician if your child:

  • Was born prematurely
  • Has special needs or was born with a congenital disorder
  • Still needs certain childhood immunizations, such as for MMR or chickenpox
  • Doesn’t yet feel comfortable switching to a new doctor

When should your child switch to a family doctor?

Because pediatricians specialize in caring for children, there will come a time when your child will need to transfer over to a family physician. But you don’t have to wait until they turn 18—in fact, it may even be beneficial to make the switch sooner. 

The first step is to ask your child how they feel about their doctor and if they would be comfortable making the switch. Some may feel strongly that they’re ready to see a new doctor, while some may prefer to continue seeing one they’re already familiar with.

Older children and teens may express interest in seeing a “grown-up doctor” as they age. This is often because some children may become uncomfortable with their pediatrician’s kid-friendly decor as they grow up.

Teenagers can even feel too embarrassed to talk about sexual health issues with their pediatrician because they view them as a “little kid doctor”. Furthermore, family doctors commonly help patients with sexual or gynecological health, so it may be beneficial to make the switch as your child begins puberty.

Ultimately, the decision to switch from a pediatrician to a family doctor depends on your child’s specific health needs and whether they’d feel more comfortable seeing a family doctor. 

Benefits of Seeing a Family Doctor

  • Care for the entire family under one roof. Family physicians are trained to treat patients of all ages, which may mean fewer trips to the doctor’s office for your family. 
  • In-depth knowledge of your family’s medical history. If multiple family members see the same doctor, that doctor may have a better understanding of your family’s medical history and can identify patterns that may affect your child’s health. 
  • A longer lasting patient-doctor relationship. Your child’s relationship with their pediatrician ends abruptly when they turn 18 (or 21, depending on the doctor). If your child sees a family doctor, they can continue to see that same doctor for as long as they would like.

Tips for Transitioning Your Child to a Family Doctor

When it comes time to transition your child to a family care practitioner, it’s important to start the process early—even before they age out of pediatric care.

The exact age that’s appropriate for making the switch will depend on your child’s needs, but many families begin the discussion around middle school (ages 11-13).

If you’re interested in making the transition, start talking with your child’s pediatrician at their next checkup to learn about next steps. All pediatricians understand that their patients will eventually age out of their care, even if that’s before patients reach 18 years old.

Your pediatrician can help you begin a plan for transitioning care to a new doctor. Many families often find this is a great time to encourage kids to start self-managing some parts of their health, including carrying their own asthma rescue inhaler or speaking up during doctor’s appointments.

Schedule a Visit with a Family Doctor in Tampa, FL

No matter if you choose a pediatrician or a family doctor for your child, regular check-ups are an essential part of keeping them healthy.

If you’re interested in transferring your child to a family doctor, request an appointment with family medicine practitioner Dr. Beth Herman to get the process started, or call 813.975.1727. Virtual appointments via telemedicine are also available.

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