What is a primary care provider?

A primary care provider (or PCP) is a healthcare professional who helps you manage your health. He or she is the first person you talk to when you have any medical problem that is not an emergency. PCPs are usually doctors, sometimes called primary care physicians. However, some nurses and physician assistants also provide primary care.

What does a primary care provider do?

A primary care provider will have a long-term relationship with you, helping you stay healthy or get better when you’re sick. Your PCP will be your partner, sharing the responsibility for your physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Primary care providers are also called general practitioners, because they cover all types of everyday health concerns. Your PCP can answer questions about infections, chronic conditions or medicines. With regular visits, such as annual health checkups, your PCP will get to know much about you:

  • Your current health.
  • Your medical history.
  • Your family’s medical history.
  • Your treatment preferences and daily challenges.
  • Your personality and lifestyle.

What can a primary care provider do at checkups?

Everyday aspects of your history and lifestyle contribute to your overall health. A PCP will consider those factors and then:

  • Teach you ways to make better decisions about your health to prevent disease. For example, your PCP can guide efforts to quit smoking, eat more nutritious foods or manage stress.
  • Make sure your vaccines are up to date to prevent illnesses like the flu.
  • Suggest screening tests to detect problems before you even notice them (like a mammogram for breast cancer).
  • Treat health problems that pop up (such as a rash or an infection).
  • Help you manage long-term health problems (for instance, diabetes, high blood pressure or depression).
  • Find a medical specialist if you need one (like a knee surgeon or a heart doctor).

How can a primary care provider help me?

Primary care physicians catch potential health problems early, before they become severe. People who have a PCP spend less time in the hospital and less money on medical costs in the long run.

A PCP gives you complete care over your lifespan. He or she will also know when you need more advanced care, like a hospital procedure or a specialist.

Are there different kinds of primary care providers?

Many types of healthcare providers offer primary care. Different specialists are trained to see certain types of patients:

  • Family practitioners (also known as family doctors) see patients of all ages, sometimes everyone in a family.
  • Pediatricians care for children and teenagers.
  • Internists, or internal medicine doctors, see only adults.
  • Geriatricians care for older people.
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists focus on women’s health and pregnancy.
  • Nurse practitioners and physician assistants also provide primary care. But they must serve as part of a team that includes a primary care physician, and the physician has overall responsibility for the patient.

How do I find a primary care provider?

To be comfortable and develop a long-term relationship, it’s important to find a PCP who is qualified, fits your personality and accepts your insurance plan. Many strategies can help you identify the right provider:

  • Talk to people you trust, such as family members, friends and neighbors.
  • Ask other healthcare professionals you know, such as your dentist, a nurse or another doctor.
  • Ask your health insurance company to help you find someone nearby who accepts your insurance.
  • Search an online national directory of healthcare providers. Organizations like the American Board of Family Medicine offer such directories.
  • Use a local search tool. Hospitals in your area may offer physician search tools.

How do I choose a primary care provider?

When you are choosing a PCP, you may be able to schedule an interview to get to know the candidate. Ask questions that can help you decide if the person is a good fit for your personality, lifestyle and needs:

  • What are your qualifications?
  • Are you certified in primary care?
  • Do you focus on disease prevention or treatment?
  • Do you have a more conservative, or more aggressive, approach to treatment?
  • How do you decide when a patient needs a specialist?
  • How do you like to communicate (in person, on the phone, by email)?
  • Whom would I talk to when you are on vacation?

You also may want to consider the PCP’s overall office setting and the staff at the PCP’s office:

What are the office hours?

  • How long does it usually take to get an appointment?
  • Does the office do lab tests onsite or nearby?
  • Are the staff members friendly?
  • Do staff members respond to calls quickly?

Why should I have a primary care provider?

A PCP can help you stay healthy and can be the first to treat any health problems that arise. Make time to find a PCP who is a partner in your long-term care, and have regular checkups.

A relationship with a PCP can help you detect and manage a wide range of health issues. A PCP can teach you how to lead a healthier lifestyle, provide needed medications, screen for disease and recommend specialists when you need them. Look for a PCP who fits your personality and needs.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/05/2020.

References

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Primary Care. (https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/primary-care.html) Accessed 11/18/2021.
  • American Medical Association. Family Medicine Specialty Description. (https://www.ama-assn.org/specialty/family-medicine-specialty-description) Accessed 11/18/2021.
  • World Health Organization. Primary Health Care. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/primary-health-care) Accessed 11/18/2021.

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