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What is the Difference Between a Family Doctor and Pediatrician

April 18, 2024 • read

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What is the Difference Between a Family Doctor and Pediatrician

Did you know there are fewer than 3,000 practicing pediatricians in Canada? This means that few Canadian children ever see a pediatrician, while many parents are left wondering if they really need to see a pediatrician or a family doctor when their child falls ill. 

First, it’s important to understand the difference between the two kinds of doctors – family physicians (also known as general practitioners) vs pediatricians. 

What are the main differences between a Pediatrician and a Family Doctor? 

Family physicians or General Practitioners (GPs) alike are incredibly well-trained generalists. They see the entire spectrum of patients from birth to end of life. Family physicians in Canada must complete 2 to 3 years of specialty training after medical school. They are well-versed in children’s health and can provide primary care for most of your family’s healthcare needs. Family physicians can provide your child with primary care including: 

  • Routine well baby/child visits – screen for health and developmental risks, advocate for health promotion and illness prevention
  • Immunizations 
  • Assess and treat illnesses and injuries of all sorts – minor to life-threatening
  • Care for conditions like chronic diseases and mental health problems
  • Coordinate care with other specialists like pediatricians or general surgeons when appropriate

Family doctors are incredible physicians and can take on a lot of your child’s healthcare needs, but there are certain areas where they may refer to other specialists like a pediatrician for more expertise. 

Learn more about the differences between a Family Doctor and a General Practitioner here

More about pediatricians

Pediatricians are experts in the challenges faced by premature infants, newborns, babies, children, teens, and young adults. They spend at least 4 additional years after med school studying children’s health. Some pediatricians further subspecialize in areas like cardiology, allergies, or developmental health. They can work in clinics, hospitals, academic centres teaching, or in clinical research. Pediatricians provide health promotion and prevention as well as detecting and caring for problems affecting a child’s:

  • Physical health like illnesses, injuries, and complex or chronic diseases 
  • Behavioural conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Emotional/mental health concerns like anxiety or depression 
  • Developmental differences like learning disabilities 
  • Environmental challenges at home, in school, or in extracurriculars 
  • Social wellbeing 

What should you consider about pediatricians?

There are estimated to be over 40000 less pediatricians than family physicians working in Canada. With fewer available, there will be things to consider about working with a pediatrician instead of a family doctor. You may want to think about: 

  • How far away is the nearest pediatrician? If the clinic is far, this may require longer commutes and more time off from work and school to attend appointments. 
  • What are the costs associated with appointments? Just like other specialists, your province will cover the cost of your pediatric appointment. Often pediatricians work more closely in urban centres, where parking is not free. These longer commutes may require additional planning in regards to transportation and associated costs of time off from work if you do not live nearby.
  • What are my child’s healthcare needs? If your child has more complex medical history and ongoing care needs, it may be beneficial to work with a pediatrician. 
  • Most importantly, what is my child’s comfort in seeing this provider? Pediatric clinics are often very child-friendly and engaging for young minds. But depending on your child, they may find more comfort in seeing the same provider you see for your own medical needs. Establishing a positive patient-provider relationship is a foundation to be able to provide the best care for your child, and you know your child best.

When should your child see a pediatrician? 

Think of it this way: minor vs major. Does your child have a cough or sore throat? A family physician is likely your best option. But if you’re dealing with developmental concerns, difficult behavioural issues, or suspected ADHD for example, a pediatrician may have more insight on such things. Similarly, if your child has any feeding difficulties, joint or growing pains, chronic conditions, or a complicated medical history, you may want to speak with a pediatrician.

Often, a pediatrician may follow a patient for one particular condition, where the family physician also continues to provide primary care. Together they collaborate in a shared care model, allowing the pediatrician to focus on more serious, complicated, or chronic health conditions like: 

  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Birth defects
  • Cystic fibrosis 
  • Epilepsy (a seizure disorder)
  • Leukemias
  • School and behavioral problems like learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, or autism

Do you need to be referred to a pediatrician? 

In some areas, yes, you will need a referral to see a pediatrician. In large urban centres like Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, or in the province of Quebec you may find a pediatrician to provide routine primary care for children throughout their childhood. In other parts of Canada however, most primary care is provided by a family physician or a nurse practitioner (often the case in more rural communities), and anything requiring help with diagnosis or treatment is referred to a pediatrician. 

You can find a pediatrician near you by: 

  • Word of mouth – asking friends and family if they know of pediatricians accepting new patients near you
  • Your provincial college of physicians and surgeons – many of these sites help people find doctors of all specialties who are accepting new patients. The Canadian Pediatric Society has all provincial links here.  
  • Referral – some provinces require a referral from a family doctor/general practitioner or nurse practitioner to see a pediatrician. 

At what age should you switch from a pediatrician to a family doctor? 

We have established that pediatricians are experts in children’s health. What about older kids and young adults? You may be feeling the urge to make the switch as your child is nearing adulthood. 

Some pediatricians work alongside family physicians, in more of a consulting capacity managing the more complex medical conditions and keeping the routine primary care to the responsibility of the family physician. 

In situations where the pediatrician provides all of your child’s healthcare needs, you may be wondering, when do we make this transition? Rest assured, there is no golden age to make the switch from your pediatrician to a family doctor. In fact, it may be different for every child. This is why there is no arbitrary age cutoff.

If your child’s health needs are complex, you may have access to more resources that are better suited for your child’s complex needs with your pediatrician and decide to continue under their care longer. You may even decide to work with your pediatrician on a transition plan or discuss when the right time would be for this transition to take place. 

What does it mean to have a family doctor? 

So what exactly does it mean to have a family doctor? First and foremost, family physicians work with you in a close, patient-physician relationship, to better manage your health over the long term. They have a broad scope of practice, providing continuity of medical care across the entire spectrum of life; from birth to end of life. These specialty-trained physicians may: 

  • Assess and treat illnesses and injuries of all sorts – minor to life-threatening
  • Provide newborn and children’s routine care
  • Screen for health risks, advocate for health promotion and illness prevention
  • Provide comprehensive care for conditions like chronic diseases and mental health problems
  • Perform small procedures or assist in surgery 
  • Advocate on your behalf and coordinate care with other specialists like pediatricians 
  • Work in a team collaborating with other healthcare professionals like nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, physiotherapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, nurses, and social workers
  • Work in various clinical settings including clinics, hospitals, community centres, nursing homes, or they may even offer house calls
  • Care for patients admitted to hospital or rehabilitation centres
  • Provide care for multiple generations within families 

Why would you choose a family doctor? 

Choosing the right physician to manage your family’s healthcare needs is unique to you and your family’s circumstances. Some people choose family physicians as their primary care provider because they:

  • Are like a one-stop shop, providing care for the whole family 
  • Provide continuity of care for all ages and stages throughout one’s life
  • Often provide care for multiple generations within families, deepening their understanding of your family history and associated health risks 
  • Collaborate with other health professionals like dietitians, social workers, and clinical pharmacists to provide comprehensive care
  • Coordinate care with other specialists like pediatricians or dermatologists when needed

How to choose between a pediatrician and a family doctor? 

Start by asking yourself these questions: 

  1. Do you live in a major urban city where pediatricians are easily accessible and provide primary care? 
  2. Does your child have more complex medical needs that would benefit from the expertise and resources of a pediatrician? 

When it comes down to making the decision between a family doctor and a pediatrician it is best to consider your family’s healthcare needs and circumstances. Family physicians will provide you with comprehensive and continuous care throughout and beyond childhood for your whole family. Whereas pediatricians focus their medical expertise and provide comprehensive care for premature infants, babies, children, teens, and young adults only. They may provide care for your child for one particular condition, or for a short period of time in their life.  

Primary care needs that are considered the ‘bread and butter’ of family medicine, with only some pediatricians providing for their patients include:  

  • Wellbaby/child visits
  • Routine vaccinations
  • Flu shots
  • Treating common illnesses like ear infections, colds, and rashes
  • Health promotion
  • Injury and illness prevention 

Although some pediatricians may also provide primary care for their patients, they are often reserved for assisting in diagnosing and treating more serious, medically complex, or chronic health conditions like: 

  • Diabetes
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Asthma
  • Mental health problems

Both specialties will refer to and collaborate with other specialists or subspecialists like pediatric cardiologists when necessary. 

I want to see a pediatrician. Now what?

If you’ve determined that a pediatrician is the right doctor for the job, we encourage you to visit The Canadian Pediatric Society here. You may also register for Maple today to get started working with our family doctors for all of your family’s healthcare needs. You can set up a profile for your child under your account. Maple improves accessibility and connects you with Canadian primary care providers and specialists online, anytime and anywhere.

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