MOST people in Hong Kong visit a Government or private doctor when they are ill. But few know that the first doctor they should consult is a family physician. Family Medicine is a discipline of growing importance worldwide. It is also receiving greater attention locally, thanks to the recent establishment of an institute for that branch of medicine. The Hong Kong Institute of Family Medicine, located at the new Union Hospital in Tai Wai, New Territories, has been set up as a centre for advanced postgraduate training. ''A specialist family doctor provides total care by emphasising not only the physical, but also the social and psychological aspects of health,'' said Professor Natalis Yuen, the institute's chairman. Being familiar with the medical history of the patient and his family, a family doctor can usually make an early and accurate diagnosis and recommend the appropriate management. This helps to protect his client from unnecessary treatments. However, Hong Kong has less than 20 training posts in the discipline at present. By comparison, countries like Canada and Australia give the largest share of the Government medical budget to family medicine. Australia, in particular, trained some 2,000 doctors each year, Professor Yuen said. The institute would provide three more training places locally. The privately-funded institute is a joint effort of the Faculty of Medicine of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Union Medical Centre. ''This is a milestone in Hong Kong as it is the first medical institute to be the result of co-operation by a university and a private organisation,'' said Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, dean of CUHK's Faculty of Medicine. While public hospitals offer team specialist management, private ones do not. But the institute will offer both specialist treatment and individual private practices. To be a fully qualified family physician, a medical student, after finishing five years of study and one-year internship, is required to undergo six more years of vocational training in family medicine under the supervision of the Hong Kong College of General Practitioners. The trainees then have to sit for a fellowship examination before becoming eligible. Medical undergraduates could also benefit from the training programmes by taking up internship for one term, said Dr Ben Fong Yuk-fai, the Union Hospital's chief hospital manager. ''The Department of Community and Family Medicine (CUHK) is planning to use the institute to develop a master's degree programme in family medicine, working in association with Monash University of Melbourne,'' added Professor Li. The institute and the hospital will be operational by the middle of next year.