Family practice: professional identity in transition. A case study of family medicine in Canada

Soc Sci Med. 2008 Oct;67(7):1153-63. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.06.019. Epub 2008 Jul 20.


With increasingly fewer family physicians in many countries and students less interested in primary care careers, generalists are becoming an endangered species. This situation is a major health care resource management challenge. In a rapidly changing health care environment, family medicine is struggling for a clear identity -- a matter which is crucial to health system restructuring because it affects the roles and functioning of other professions in the system. The objective of our study was to explore representations of roles and responsibilities of family physicians held by future family and specialist physicians and their clinical teachers in four Canadian medical school faculties of medicine, using both focus groups and individual interviews. In addition to family medicine, we targeted residency programs in general psychiatry, radiology and internal medicine -- three areas that interface significantly between primary care and specialized medicine. In each faculty, respondents included the vice-dean of postgraduate studies; the director of each relevant program; educators in the program; residents in each specialty in their last year of training. Findings are centred around three major themes: (1) the definition of family medicine; (2) family medicine as an endangered species, and (3) the generation gap between young family physicians and their educators. The sustained physician-patient relationship is considered a core characteristic of family medicine that is much valued by patients and physicians -- both generalists and specialists -- as something to be preserved in any model of collaboration to be developed. Overall, two divergent directions emerge: preserving all the professions' traditional functions while adapting to changing contexts, or concentrating on areas of expertise and moving towards creating "specialist" general practitioners, in response to a rapidly expanding scope of practice, and to the high value attributed to specialization by society and the professional system.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Canada
  • Faculty, Medical
  • Family Practice / trends*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Primary Health Care / trends*
  • Social Identification