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April 5, 2024 • read

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What is the Difference between a Family Doctor and General Physician

It can be difficult to know the difference between a family physician and a general practitioner (GP). Or if you don’t have a doctor, knowing which one – a family doctor vs general physician, is best suited for you and your healthcare needs. Internet searches may highlight the differences in training and scope of practice in other countries, but it could also muddle up your understanding of how things work in Canada. The two delegations are often used interchangeably here and we’ll tell you why.  

How is a family physician different from a GP? 

Simply put, before the 1960s medical graduates could choose between general practice or general surgery fellowships. Physicians opting for the non-surgical profession were called General Practitioners (GPs) and later overseen by the College of General Practice of Canada. 

The title changed from GP to Family Physicians as the post-graduate training changed throughout the 1960s and 70s with the creation of family medicine as a medical specialty. Upon completion of the residency program, graduating residents were able to sit for the certification exam in Family Medicine. The college changed its name to the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) in 1976 in support of this shift. 

Canadian physicians trained in general practice before the start of these residency programs may still call themselves a GP. Foreign physicians trained in general medicine may also carry the delegation of GP, however, after completing the requirements to earn practicing privileges in Canada, their role in providing medical care in the community is very similar to a family physician. 

What is a family physician’s training? 

Many people may not know that family medicine is a specialty requiring additional training similar to other medical and surgical specialties. The standardization of a 2-year family medicine residency requirement after graduating from medical school was established in the 1980s. Some physicians choose to extend their residency an additional year for further specialty training. A Canadian Medical Association (CMA) physician workforce survey estimated that just over 15% of all physicians in Canada are family physicians with a focused practice. This additional specialization can be in: 

  • Addictions medicine
  • Anesthesia 
  • Care for the elderly
  • Emergency medicine 
  • Enhanced surgical skills 
  • Obstetrics and maternity care
  • Palliative care 
  • Sports and exercise medicine

 Family physicians undergo continuous medical education throughout their medical careers. To maintain their CFPC certification, they must complete proficiency exercises every 5 years.

Family Physician – What do they do? 

So what exactly do family physicians do? They have a broad scope of practice, providing medical care across the entire spectrum of life; from birth to end of life. These physicians may: 

  • Assess and treat illnesses and injuries of all sorts – minor to life-threatening
  • Care for conditions like chronic diseases and mental health problems
  • Provide pre-and post-natal and maternity care, newborn and children’s care
  • Screen for health risks, advocate for health promotion and illness prevention
  • Perform small procedures (like a skin biopsy or toenail removal) or assist in surgery 
  • Coordinate care with other specialists 
  • Work in a team collaborating with other healthcare professionals like nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses, and social workers
  • Work in an office or hospital setting, community centers, nursing homes, or offer house calls
  • Care for patients admitted to hospitals or rehabilitation centers
  • Be a valued resource for other family physicians and patients by holding Certificates of Added Competence (CAC) in specialties like addictions or care for the elderly for example. 

Physicians who practice family medicine may also have academic involvement, teaching other medical students, residents, or other medical professionals. Family physicians may be involved in clinical research or take on administration roles working for governmental or health authorities.

Most importantly, a family physician works with you in a close, patient-physician relationship, to better manage your health over the long term. They will often provide care for multiple generations within families. 

What is a GP? 

In Canada, GPs are physicians trained in general practice before the family medicine residency programs were established, or trained internationally at medical schools in another country. The term general practitioner is now used almost synonymously with family physician.

GP – What do they do? 

In other countries, GPs may have a more generalized scope of practice, referring you to other specialists more readily than a family doctor may. In Canada, however, the Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA) collects data clarifying the scope of practice in family medicine and does not distinguish between general practice and family medicine. Similar to family physicians, GPs provide medical care to patients of all ages in the primary care setting, be involved in academia, research, or work administratively with government or health authorities.

GP – What is their training? 

GPs trained in Canada were once required to complete a one-year fellowship in general medicine after completing medical school. This fellowship was available to physicians before family medicine became a medical specialty and before the residency training programs started. Residency programs for the family medicine specialty are now 2 years with an option to extend for an additional third year. Training programs may differ with other countries. Ireland for example, graduates general practitioners after a 4 year residency program, whereas the UK has 3 year residency programs in general practice. International medical graduates (IMGs) must complete all requirements with the Medical Council of Canada in addition to any provincial requirements for eligibility to practice here. The College of Family Physicians of Canada may grant certification in family medicine to physicians trained abroad in programs that are “approved as equivalent to accredited Canadian training in family medicine”.

What kind of doctor do I need? 

Whether it be a GP or Family Physician, these doctors are here to provide you and your family a continuum of care throughout your life. If additional specializations like addictions and pain management or obstetrics and maternity care appeal to you, perhaps look for a family physician with these additional certifications. Regardless of titles, family doctor vs. GP, physicians may only practice in areas they are trained and experienced in. Anything outside of this, they will likely refer you to another specialist, like a dermatologist or general surgeon. 

If you don’t have a doctor or can’t get in to see your doctor, then you may want to consider virtual medicine. Our doctors on Maple can provide most of the services that a family physician can. They can help with most non-emergency issues that do not require an in-person assessment or follow-up. Our doctors can provide medical advice, make a diagnosis, and write prescriptions and medical notes. Virtual care has bridged these healthcare gaps for Canadians and can provide medical advice or make a diagnosis for:

  • Common cold & flu symptoms: fever, fatigue, chills, body aches, headaches, stuffy nose, sneezing
  • Assess and treat mental health issues
  • Assess and treat many skin problems 
  • Assess and treat urinary, sinus, and minor skin infections 
  • Provide sexual health care, including screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and hormonal contraception

Our doctors at Maple can support you with additional services like:  

  • Provide medical advice for and while travelling 
  • Assess and treat conditions monitored with home devices and/or lab tests 
  • Review lab, imaging, and specialist reports with you 
  • Connect you with specialists 
  • Write prescriptions and medical notes

What should I do if I don’t have a doctor? 

If your doctor is retiring, or you recently moved and haven’t found one yet, you don’t have a doctor, or can’t get in to see yours. There is no need to panic. There are options for you. 

  1. Consider a nurse practitioner-led clinic that may also be able to meet all of your healthcare needs
  2. Connect with a local family health center. They will likely know what physicians are accepting new patients and can point you in the right direction.
  3. Try searching using the doctor directory on your province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons website. The physician’s credentials will be available along with contact information where you can inquire if they are accepting new patients. CPSO has some resources for finding a new family doctor in Ontario for example. 

Other ways clinicians are filling these gaps are through virtual healthcare. Maple allows you to connect with a Canadian licensed doctor wherever and whenever you need to, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Connect with a doctor online today.

Where can I find a family doctor in my province? 

Doctor directories from your province’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons is a good starting point when looking for a new family doctor. On our Help Desk, you may also find leads of doctors accepting new patients. Alternatively, you can skip the search, save your commute and waiting room wait times, and connect with a Canadian doctor with Maple right away. With more than 20 different kinds of providers available, it’s easy for plan members to consult hard-to-reach specialists when you need it. The provincial breakdown of our types of healthcare providers can be found at getmaple.ca/providers.

Understanding the difference between family doctors and GPs may feel confusing, especially since the terms are often used synonymously in Canada. But when it comes to providing the care you need, you can rest assured that physicians practicing in family medicine, GPs, and family physicians alike will provide the care you need or connect you with other professionals when necessary. 

Maple is certainly here to help. Download the Maple app and Click Get Care to speak with a healthcare provider today. Get started

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