Everyone needs a primary care doctor, and choosing one you're comfortable with is a must.

One decision you face as an adult: Family medicine doctor or internal medicine doctor? (They’re also known as internists, not to be confused with interns.)

Your primary care doctor will help keep you healthy over the long haul and will be your go-to when you get sick — either for treating common symptoms or making a referral to a specialist when health conditions are more complex. Internists and family doctors are both primary care doctors, but they're different.

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Dr. Daniel Hernandez is an internist at Novant Health Adult Primary Care Miller Street in Winston-Salem. A native of El Salvador, he joined the clinic in January after completing his residency at Mercy Hospital St. Louis.

Son of a surgeon and a pediatrician, Hernandez likens internal medicine to detective work: "We try to help patients by following the clues, just like in a criminal case, to reach a solution." He especially likes being on the front line of patient care in an integrated health care system like Novant Health with clinics, hospitals, outpatient services and more. As gatekeepers, both internists and family doctors rely on those resources to care for their patients.

Hernandez recently explained the focus of both physicians and offered some guidance on choosing a primary care doctor who is right for you.

Internal Medicine physicians care for patients 18 and older, focusing on preventive care, acute conditions like infections, rashes; and chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Some internal medicine physicians are also trained to do minor procedures like joint injections, skin biopsies and pap tests.

Family Medicine physicians care for patients of all ages, newborns through geriatrics. They too are focused on prevention and wellness care, acute conditions like infections and rashes as well as minor orthopedic conditions such as strains and sprains, and chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Family Medicine physicians are also trained to do minor procedures like joint injections, skin biopsies and pap tests.

Essentially the big differences between Family Medicine and Internal Medicine are:

  1. Family medicine physicians can see kids and deliver babies, although most don't do obstetrics.
  2. Family medicine physicians get more training in orthopedics, dermatology, and procedures.
  3. Internal Medicine physician get more training in hospital based medicine and medicine subspecialties.

But bottom line: "Both of us are the first line of contact in the health care system," Hernandez said.

Family doctors and internists diagnose, treat and aim to prevent disease, and both counsel patients about healthy lifestyle habits.

Both complete a three-year residency, which means they’re under the supervision of a senior medical leader as they continue training after graduating from medical school. An internist's training focuses on acute and chronic, or ongoing, patient care. Their training may also delve into areas such as heart health, endocrinology or infectious diseases. Family doctors treat the widest range of ages and conditions, and receive training in obstetrics, gynecology, pediatrics, radiology and more.

For patients seeking a front-line health care provider, the choice can be confusing.

So how can a patient find the right doctor? Hernandez offered some guidance:

  • Ask family and friends for recommendations.
  • Go to NovantHealth.org Physician Finder page and look for doctors near you, then compare their qualifications, experience and patient reviews. (Take single reviews with "a grain of salt," he advised, especially those that are very positive or very negative, because one patient's experience may differ from yours.)
  • Make sure your insurance covers the provider you choose.

  • Schedule an initial consultation to see if you feel comfortable with the doctor. If you don't seem to click, try another. Novant Health has one who is right for you.

Most importantly: See a doctor every year to catch small problems that could grow into bigger ones.