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Ask the Doctor at Saint John’s: The Importance of Seeing Your Physician for Preventive Medicine:

Q. What is the difference between an internist and a general practitioner?

A. By Joel Isackson M.D., a board certified internist on the medical staff at Saint John’s Health Center and in private practice with Westside Internal Medicine.

Internists specialize in the treatment of adults of all ages. They do not practice pediatrics or obstetrics, and do not perform surgical procedures. Internal medicine doctors complete a three year residency training after finishing medical school. After the three year program, they may become board certified in internal medicine by passing a two day written exam.

Internal medicine specialists are different from general practitioners who may only have one year of training after medical school. Technically, one can practice medicine with only one year of general training after medical school. Family medicine doctors usually do a three year residency that includes adult medicine, pediatrics and OB/GYN training.

How often should you see your physician?

It depends on your age and whether you have any ongoing health conditions, such as hypertension or elevated cholesterol. People with long term medical issues should see their doctor at least annually. Men should start to see their physician annually at age 50 for screenings for prostate and colon cancer, as well as for cholesterol and blood pressure checks.

Women should start to see their physician annually when they become sexually active for yearly pap smears and pelvic exams. Breast exams and mammograms should be considered annually at 40 years old. Some women are recommended to start earlier based on family history of breast cancer. Men and women should start to have colonoscopies at age 50, unless they have a family history of colon cancer or polyps or have symptoms suspicious for colon cancer in which case screening earlier is recommended.

Men generally should be tested for prostate cancer at age 50 with both the digital rectal exam and blood tests, unless they have a family history of prostate cancer and then they should be tested at age 40. African Americans should also start their annual testing earlier, as studies have shown that prostate cancer can be more aggressive among African Americans.

Even if you think you are fine, it is a good idea to establish a relationship with a primary care doctor, known as a “medical home.” That way, when you are sick you know exactly where to go and who to see. Additionally, the doctor will have some baseline information about you and hopefully preventive care has already been addressed.

We recommend that a person get involved in some sort of fitness and exercise regimen to improve their health, to optimize cholesterol, blood pressure and weight. Exercise is important for good heart health! Several of my patients ran with me on October 19 at the Saint John’s Santa Monica 5000 5k/10k race.

Joel Isackson, M.D. is an internal medicine specialist at Saint John’s Health Center, and Westside Internal Medicine. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA. For more information about Dr. Isackson and other Saint John’s services please call (310) 829-8990 or visit the website at For a physician referral or a second opinion, please call 1-888-ASK-SJHC.

Want to learn about a variety of health and lifestyle issues? Watch “Coffee Break,” a weekly, live television show broadcast Wednesdays at 2 – 3 p.m. on Santa Monica City TV Channel 16 and LA City Channel 36.

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