Spend a few minutes reading up on the world of health care and you’ll come across this phrase: a primary care doctor. And the phrase itself makes sense. A primary care doctor is someone you see first when you have a problem, or to get a routine check-up.
It’s when you toss in the other words that things get confusing for patients. Who are “internists”? Is a primary care provider different than a primary care physician? Where do pediatrics fit in? And what happens when your health insurance doesn’t offer the coverage for routine checkups with your primary care physician? Let’s answer these questions to make sense of all the different words you’re likely to encounter.
What is the Difference Between a Primary Care Physician and a Family Doctor?
A “family doctor” is a doctor who doesn’t specialize in either children or adults. For example, a doctor who specializes in children is known as a pediatrician. Typically, a primary care doctor for “adults” is known as someone in internal medicine. But specializing in family medicine means that the doctor doesn’t specialize in either/or. They’re capable of seeing both adult and child patients. “Family medicine” refers to the practice of examining and treating both age groups.
What about the phrase “primary care doctor”? This refers to the doctor with whom the patient has the most immediate relationship for basic care. For example, a child can have a primary care doctor who is also a pediatrician or a family medicine doctor. Similarly, an adult can have a primary care doctor who specializes in internal medicine or is a family medicine doctor.
What Does a Primary Care Doctor Do?
A primary care doctor can help with preventative care and other basic health care needs. Unless you have an emergency, they’re the ones you see first if you have an issue that you need remedied.
Think of the primary care doctor as your first line of defense in the battle to maintain wellness. They’re the ones you see for checkups, or even during the management of your long-term chronic conditions. If you do have medical needs that venture outside their realm of expertise, they can then offer you a referral to a specialist who can pay closer attention to your specific issues.
Why is Primary Care So Important?
There isn’t one particular reason; instead, there are all sorts of reasons that primary care can be so important.
- Preventative care. There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s certainly the case with many ailments. Having a good relationship with your primary care doctor will help ensure that they’re aware of your issues, and that they can step in and offer preventative care when necessary.
- A primary care doctor, especially one who handles family medicine, can advise you on the immunizations you or a child may need in certain situations. They can help you navigate the complex world of medical history and medical conditions to understand what your best options for prevention may be.
- Patient-specific needs. When you have specific needs due to your individual medical status, those are very private needs. No patient wants to constantly switch between gynecologists or internal medicine doctors, after all. To do so can be counterproductive to good care. It also makes navigating the world of medicine much more difficult for each patient.
Why is Primary Care so Important?
Patients of all ages require a primary care physician. For someone young, that may be a doctor who focuses on a family practice. For someone old, it may refer to a geriatrician. But the point is simple: it’s good to have a primary care physician that you can depend on. Someone who knows your history, knows you, and understands what’s important when it comes to your treatment.
There’s a temptation to view primary care physicians as “generalists.” People who might not know as much about specific health conditions that you might suffer from. And in many cases, that is true. There is a reason a primary care physician is typically not someone who specializes in a specific type of ailment, or a specific type of patient. Their role is to handle a wider range of knowledge, and then hand over a referral when necessary.
It’s also important for you to have some confidence in the people you work with. It’s your health, after all. As you familiarize yourself with your primary care physician, they can handle relatively routine problems like high blood pressure. You’ll get to know their offices and their office hours. As you build familiarity, the entire process of having a routine checkup will feel that much more natural to you.
Understanding Other Words in the Medical Field
Because there are so many terms thrown about these days, it’s important for patients to have a clear understanding of who does what. The more you know about these terms, the better you’ll be able to grasp the different quirks of getting your own health taken care of. Let’s look at some of these:
- OB-GYN: This stands for Obstetrics and gynecology.
- Obstetricians: Separate from an OB-GYN. As WebMD notes, a gynecologist is a doctor specializing in the reproductive health of women. Obstetricians help women during their pregnancy, as well as after the child is born, and can also deliver babies. An OB-GYN refers to someone who handles both specialties.
- “Board-certified.” Board-certified refers to, according to the American Board of Medical Specialties, “specialty-specific training beyond medical licensure.” Typically this is relevant for medical specialties, and may not be as relevant when consulting with a primary care physician. In that case, a proper medical license is what you’ll want to be focused on.
- Geriatric: This refers to the care of the elderly. There are many medical professionals who specifically handle elder care.
How Do You Know Which Kind of Physician is Right For You?
Between all of the terms—family doctor, primary care physician, internal medicine, etc.—it can be easy to get lost in the vast dictionary of the medical world. But when you zoom in to each individual term, you’ll see that it’s not nearly as difficult to navigate as you think.
One of the most important aspects to realize is that having a primary care physician will help you navigate this world. You shouldn’t, after all, be expected to handle all of the research yourself. A family doctor—or a primary care physician—can be your first point of reference for making sense of what needs to happen. It’s this person that you can bring your symptoms to when you need to report something. It’s this person who you answer your questions when you’ve been hearing about the latest medical trends.
In turn, a good relationship with a primary care physician means you’ll build up a level of trust and comfort over time. This not only makes you more likely to seek the care you need, but will help you make more informed decisions about your care when working with an expert you can trust. From there, you’ll have more confidence in the way you approach your health—and in the way you seek out the right health care workers to help.