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What is a primary care physician: 5 types of primary care doctors and when to see them

Reviewed by 
Laolu Fayanju, MD

Article at a glance

  • There are a variety of different medical professionals that provide primary care to their patients such as internists, pediatricians, geriatricians, and more.
  • Knowing when to see a primary care physician versus when to seek emergency help can be confusing.
  • With so many different types of primary care doctors to choose from, it can be challenging to know which one to choose.

Within the healthcare system, primary care physicians are known to be the healthcare providers that manage and coordinate primary care for their designated group of patients. This means that when a patient requires healthcare in non-emergency situations, like routine check-ups, mild aches, chronic disease, etc., they report to their primary care physician to evaluate their situation and discover their next steps. The main goal of primary care facilities is to develop relationships between the patients and their primary care practitioners in order to provide lifelong, preventative healthcare that suits the patient’s wants and needs. Establishing a lasting connection between the patient and their healthcare provider allows the provider to become more familiar with a patient’s medical history and overall health, leading to better-tailored care and health plan. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), central to the concept of primary care is the patient.”

What are primary care physicians?

A variety of providers are known to practice primary care, such as family practitioners, pediatricians, geriatricians, internists, gynecologists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, etc. Often, these providers work amongst what is known as a primary care team” that includes a network of PCPs, nurses, specialists, and more. This team collaborates on the healthcare of each patient to ensure they are receiving the quality of care they need and deserve.

Common primary care specialties.

Family Practitioner: After a medical student completes a family practice residency and becomes board-eligible, they are fully certified to practice family medicine.’ Family medicine physicians provide care to patients that range in age anywhere from a child to a grown adult, and most practices are certified to include obstetric care and minor surgery.

Pediatrician: After completing a pediatric residency and becoming board-eligible, these doctors are entirely certified to practice care on children ranging in age from a newborn up to an adolescent. Depending on the practice, some patients can see a pediatrician up until the age of 21 if they are enrolled in school.

Geriatrician: After completing a residency in family medicine or internal medicine and becoming board-certified in geriatric care, these doctors are fully eligible to practice care on older adults. Often, geriatricians provide medical care for those over 65 who are experiencing medical issues related to aging.

Internist: After completing a residency in internal medicine and becoming board-eligible, these doctors are fully certified to practice what is known as internal medicine.’ An internal medicine doctor treats a wide age range of adult patients for a variety of medical issues.

Gynecologist: After completing a gynecological residency and becoming board-eligible, these doctors are certified to primarily practice specialty care for women of all ages.

Common primary care providers.

Primary care can be accessed through a variety of providers including Nurse Practitioner’s (NP), Physician’s (MD/DO), and Physician Assistants (PA), though often they work as a team. While many assume they should only receive care from a Doctor, Nurse Practitioners require significant education and certifications, and play an important role in primary care. Nurse Practitioners will often perform annual check-ups, provide vaccinations, and diagnose and treat seasonal illnesses and cold like symptoms.

Where are primary care providers located?

A PCP works within what is called a primary care practice.” Typically these primary care practices are located in a patient’s community, making their doctor’s office accessible and easy to use. Most times, a primary clinician facilitates outpatient care, but there are times when they manage inpatient care as well for a patient who may be hospitalized for an injury, illness, etc.

What types of health insurance do primary care providers accept?

Primary care providers often work as part of a healthcare network that’s contracted through certain insurance plans. Due to this, primary care physicians and their practice may only be able to accept specific insurance plans. Commonly accepted insurance plans are HMO plans because they require their members to have a PCP. To better understand what managed care services are supported by a primary care provider, it’s best to contact the doctor’s office directly and inquire about supported insurance options.

Primary care vs. emergency care.

A patient should seek out help from their primary care doctor when the health concern is related to minor injuries or illnesses. When the medical problem seems life-threatening or urgent, seek healthcare services from the providers in an emergency room. However, while emergency situations may come from unforeseen circumstances, it’s important to note that minor injuries or illnesses seen by a PCP can be avoided by a patient regularly seeing their PCP. It’s crucial for a patient to annually schedule a visit to their PCP in order to receive various preventative healthcare measures and reduce their chances of visiting the hospital for the duration of the year.

When to See a PCP:

  • Annual physical exams.
  • Preventative boosters and vaccines.
  • Mild fever.
  • Minor aches and pains.
  • A lingering cough or cold.

Tip: When suffering from specific ailments or illnesses, it may be required to first see a primary care physician. For example, those who are concerned about heart disease often first discuss their concerns with their PCP, who then refers their patient to proper specialists or other providers that may be necessary.

When to Go to an Emergency Room:

  • Chest pains or symptoms of heart attack or stroke.
  • Seizure.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Head injury or pain.
  • Poisoning.
  • Choking or difficulty breathing.
  • Open fractures, severe cuts, burns, or uncontrollable bleeding.
  • Fever in elderly individuals or young children.

Tip: Preventative care refers to the shots, vaccines, and other routine check-ups that are provided with the intent to prevent illness/​injury in the future. To find out more about what check-ups are recommended based on a patient’s age range and gender, visit this resource. To find out more about what a routine check-up at a primary care facility looks like, visit this resource.

How to choose a Primary Care Provider.

Due to healthcare needs varying from patient to patient, primary care providers also vary from patient to patient. However, there are some easy ways to evaluate which general practitioner could be the best fit.

Family Practitioner: While you can seek out a family medicine doctor as an individual, they are recommended for families because a family doctor is certified to treat people of all ages (newborn to elderly).

Pediatrician: A pediatrician is a doctor that specializes in what is known as pediatrics,’ which essentially is providing primary care services to children from birth into their adolescence. Often, a child must switch to another PCP, such as an internist or family physician, once they become a legalized adult at 18. However, if a child is enrolled in school, they may continue seeing their pediatrician until graduation or age 21.

Geriatrician: The primary care specialty of a geriatrician is aiding patients who are experiencing medical issues due to aging. This means that most times, they are caring for the elderly. According to the American Geriatrics Society, about 30% of people over 65 need geriatric care. Often, a patient will see a geriatrician in addition to their primary care doctor, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

Internist: One of the most common PCPs to have is an internal medicine physician or a doctor who is certified in internal medicine. These doctors are eligible to provide care for adults at any age.

Gynecologist: A gynecologist is a PCP that practices specialized care in gynecological medicine, which primarily pertains to patients who are women. Most often, a patient sees their OB-GYN in addition to their primary care physician. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that a girl should begin seeing an OB-GYN between the ages of 13 and 15.

Tip: Four signs that suggest a patient may need to see a geriatric specialist are: they are taking multiple medications, they are having memory trouble, their mobility is lacking, or they have recently been hospitalized. For more information on geriatric care, visit this resource.

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