Health and fitness

What Does Primary Care Physician Mean?

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A primary care physician is a medical doctor who’s trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat a broad array of illnesses and injuries in the general population.

Primary care physicians provide comprehensive care — which means they can address chronic, long-term conditions like diabetes mellitus as well as acute problems like bronchitis, allergic reactions, or colds and flu.

These doctors take continuing responsibility for providing patients with comprehensive care. Primary care physicians (sometimes called family doctors, internists, or general practitioners) are doctors who have been trained to be patients’ first point of entry into the healthcare system. They’re also experts in helping track patient’s health over time or in coordinating care when patients are seeing several specialists. Common roles of a primary care physician are to

  • Diagnose and treat acute and severe illnesses.
  • Provide annual checkups and routine health screenings.
  • Counsel on lifestyle changes to prevent diseases.
  • Coordinate care with other physicians and specialists as needed.
  • Provide age-appropriate immunizations.

Primary care physicians have board certifications and completed residencies and fellowships in primary care. Some of the medical areas that they are trained in include:

  • Bone and joint care
  • Care for patients of all ages, from newborns to elderly
  • Care for chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease
  • Ear, nose, and throat care
  • Emergency care
  • Eyecare
  • Minor surgical procedures
  • Mental and behavioral healthcare
  • Reproductive system care for men and women.

A primary care physician will help patients navigate their healthcare system when they need assistance selecting the proper specialist, coordinating their care with other providers, and ensuring they understand their treatment options. Having a primary care physician means patients will have someone they can turn to for healthcare advice whether it is preventive care, treating common illnesses and injuries, or recommending a specialist when they need one. Different types of primary care physicians are as follows:

Family medicine doctor: Also called a family physician, this doctor sees patients who are infants, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistant: In some primary care practices, you may be treated by a nurse practitioner (NP) or physician assistant (PA). These highly trained professionals are increasingly important in primary care. They must earn a master’s degree, pass a certification exam, and maintain state licensure to practice. PAs are under the supervision of a physician, and about half of the states in the United States require physician oversight for NPs.

Geriatrician: This type of doctor provides specialized care for the elderly (people older than 65 years). Older people may face different health issues or have different health concerns such as medication management or dementia. A doctor specializing in geriatric medicine can be helpful.

Internal medicine doctor (MD): Also known as a general internist, this type of doctor typically only treats adults.

Osteopathic medicine doctor (DO): An osteopathic doctor is very similar to an internist, except with a more holistic approach, incorporating some chiropractic skills. In the United States, this degree requires the same amount of schooling but a different certification test.

Pediatrician: Patients younger than 21 years can see a pediatrician who specializes in caring for young individuals, including newborns and infants.

What to consider when choosing a primary care physician:

Because a primary care physician can have a big impact on your health, it’s important to find a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with. The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you don’t already have a doctor.

Here are some practical matters to consider when choosing a primary care doctor:

Insurance. A good starting place for finding a doctor is your health insurance plan. If your plan requires you to use an in-network doctor, start by looking at the list of participating doctors.

Policies. What are the policies if you need to cancel or reschedule appointments? Does the office offer payment plans if you need a procedure that is costly and isn’t covered by insurance?

Location. How close is the doctor to your home or office? If you plan to use public transportation to get to the doctor’s office, how long will the trip take?

Language. Can your doctor or members of his staff communicate well in a language you prefer using?

Hours. Are the doctor’s office hours compatible with your work schedule or your child’s school schedule? Does the office have weekend, evening, or on-call services if you need them?

Online access. Does the primary care team offer telemedicine options? Do they offer an online portal where you can ask your doctor questions, schedule appointments, see your test results, and access your health history?

Board certification. You can see whether the doctor you’re considering is board certified by using the Certification Matters tool offered by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Next steps in choosing a doctor

Once you’ve settled on a short list of possible primary care physicians, contact the office to schedule an appointment.

When you call the office, notice how the staff interacts with you. Since you’ll often be communicating with the office staff, it’s important to feel comfortable with them, too.

When you meet with the primary care physician, bring a list of questions that are important to you.

Notice whether the doctor is listening to your concerns. It may feel uncomfortable to think of a doctor’s appointment as an interview, but it can also be empowering. It may help you to remember that you and your doctor are forming a partnership to take care of your health.

It’s okay if it takes more than one interview to find the right doctor for you.

The bottom line

Primary care physicians are doctors who work to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions that affect people at varying life stages.



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