Which Kind of Primary Care Doctor Should I Choose?

primary care doctor talking to patient

Primary care doctors play an important role in your health. They should be the center of your medical team, your starting place for most health care, and the person who has an in-depth knowledge of your medical history and any current health concerns and understands your risk factors for specific conditions.

What is a Primary Care Doctor

Your primary care physician (PCP) knows which medications you’re on and can help you avoid dangerous drug interactions. They’re someone you can easily talk to and trust. If you have an urgent medical need, they’re someone you should call. (Always call 9-1-1 if you’re having a medical emergency – then call your primary care doctor.)

Primary Care Specialties

But doctors with varying medical backgrounds fall under the umbrella of primary care physicians.

  • How do you know which is the right fit for you?
  • Do you need an internal medicine doctor, a family doctor or a geriatrician?
  • Will a nurse practitioner without a medical degree do?
  • What are the things you should really be looking for in a PCP?


Internal Medicine vs Family Medicine?

To make an informed decision, it’s important to know the difference between these healthcare providers. Two of the most common are internal medicine doctors, also called internists, and family doctors. The length of their training—medical school and a three-year residency—is the same. But the training itself and clinical approach results in unique skill sets and different strengths in caring for patients, according to the American College of Physicians.

Internists only treat adults (starting at age 18 to 21) and take a comprehensive approach to the long-term care of their patients. They are trained to manage common problems, such as minor burns or digestive problems, like vomiting or blood in your stool. But they are also skilled at diagnosing and treating more complex conditions such as cancer, infections,] and diseases affecting internal organs such as the heart, kidneys and joints, and the digestive, respiratory and vascular systems, notes the American Medical Association (AMA). Internists provide both outpatient and inpatient care, as needed. They are sometimes referred to as the “doctor’s doctor.” They’re the one other physicians call upon to help solve perplexing diagnostic problems.

Internists – not to be confused with interns, who are medical students still in training – are equally adept at reviewing age-based issues that can impact health, and counsel patients on prevention and overall wellness.

There is overlap in the practice of family medicine doctors. Two main differences are that family doctors focus on general outpatient care. In addition, they receive broad training that allows them to treat all family members, from birth through the older years. Naturally, you don’t need to have children to see a physician who practices family medicine. In fact, in the typical family practice 85 percent to 90 percent of patients are adults.

Family doctors provide comprehensive healthcare at every stage of your life, from preventive care to management of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. If you break a bone or come down with a nasty case of the flu, a family physician can help address your injury and work with you to get back to good health. They perform diagnostic tests and occasionally minor surgery, such as circumcision and vasectomy. Addressing patients’ lifetime needs, these doctors perform annual physicals, administer immunizations, deliver babies and provide palliative care.

Geriatricians are primary care doctors certified in geriatric medicine to treat patients who are 65 or older. But turning 65 isn’t a reason to consult a geriatric doctor. A healthy 80-year-old could remain in the care of their family doctor or internist.

Geriatricians tend to treat patients with several diseases and disabilities, including cognitive problems. A patient who is on multiple medications, has memory problems or is unsteady on their feet would be a candidate for a consult with a geriatrician.

These specialists can screen for dementia, assess balance and gait and review medications, noting which to toss and which to keep. The doctor may refer you for physical therapy and make other recommendations to help improve your quality of life.

Note that geriatric doctors aren’t to be confused with gerontologists—nonmedical experts who study the process of aging.


Specialists Who Also Do Primary Care

Typically, specialists stay in their own lane, but some physicians who specialize in areas like pulmonology, endocrinology and even gynecology may also practice as primary care physicians. That’s because many of the conditions they help their patients manage are intertwined with primary care issues. For example, an endocrinologist may be involved with helping patients lose weight to better manage type 2 diabetes while also watching out for their heart health.


Medical Extenders

Other healthcare professionals, such as nurse practitioners, provide primary care in facilities such as hospitals, urgent care centers and private doctor’s offices. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have continued their studies to obtain at least a master’s degree in nursing, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. They must complete at least 1,000 hours of clinical practice in a specialized area, such as primary care, family medicine or pediatrics. Generally speaking, nurse practitioners are trained to perform physical exams; order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests, such as x-rays and lab work; diagnose and treat acute and chronic conditions; prescribe medications; and provide patient education on healthy lifestyles. While nurse practitioners have an important role to play in the healthcare system, they lack the years of training and experience to step into the role of a primary care provider.

Similar to nurse practitioners, physician assistants also diagnose, develop and manage treatment, prescribe medications and serve as primary care providers. They practice in every state and type of practice, but about one-third serve in primary care roles. Like NPs, they usually are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician.


More Than Just a Doctor, a Partner in Health

The primary care physicians in MDVIP’s national network are typically internists or family medicine doctors. There are a few with other specialties and many have a specialty beyond primary care or a medical area where they have additional training and knowledge. With more than 1,000 doctors nationwide, chances are there’s one near you.

And unlike many other primary care doctors, MDVIP-affiliated physicians see fewer patients. That means they have time to get to know you, work with you on specific health issues and offer conveniences not often found in primary care practices, including same- and next-day appointments that start on time and last as long as needed.

Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »


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