What is a primary care doctor?

A primary care doctor is your go-to person in most situations when you or someone in your family needs medical care. (But if you think you are dealing with a life-threatening emergency, call 911.) The term PCP is often used as an abbreviation. It stands for primary care physician or primary care provider.

There are different types of primary care doctors.

  • Family practitioners care for patients of all ages and often provide primary care for everyone in a family.
  • Pediatricians care for children and teenagers.
  • Internists, or internal medicine doctors, care for adults.
  • Geriatricians care for older people.
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists specialize in women’s health and might be a primary care doctor for a woman, especially if she is or will be pregnant.

All doctors in these groups have received special training to prepare them for serving that particular group of people.

In some cases a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant might be a primary care provider.

How does having a primary care doctor affect your health care?

A big part of a primary care doctor’s job is to learn about you – your medical conditions, your personal and family medical history, and things like whether or not you smoke, and how much stress you face at work and at home. All of this helps the doctor treat you when you’re sick and recognize risks before you get sick. If you have multiple medical conditions, having a doctor who knows about all of them is better than having a doctor you just met in the emergency room because of one of them.

Primary care doctors offer preventative medicine that will help you stay away from that emergency room, too. Annual physical examinations are part of this, but there’s a lot more. Flu shots, screening tests to detect problems before they become more serious, and advice on making better decisions about all kinds of things – diet, exercise, stress management, how to stop smoking – are available from a good primary care doctor.

Research has shown that people who have a primary care doctor do better in managing chronic diseases, spend less time in the hospital and less time away from work, and are more satisfied with their care. They also can save money, because not getting sick is less expensive than dealing with being sick.

When you are ill, a primary care doctor can make an informed decision about whether you need to go to the hospital. And if you need a doctor who is a specialist, your primary care doctor can help you find the one who is right for you.

How can you find a primary care doctor?

Most insurance providers maintain a list of doctors who accept that insurance, and can also provide information about how much it will cost to use a doctor who is not “in the network.” So that’s a good place to start.

There are a lot of choices. How do you know who is best for you?

You are going to need information you can trust, so talk to people you trust. You probably want a doctor whose office is close to your home or your office, and that means you might know people who are patients of those doctors. Ask your friends and co-workers. Ask another health professional you know, like a nurse, a pharmacist, or a dentist. If you need to change primary care doctors for some reason, ask your current doctor if she or he can recommend some choices to be your new doctor. Your insurance provider might also have someone who can give you advice about this.

What questions should you ask about the doctor?

There are a lot of questions you can ask besides, “Is this person a good doctor?” You will want a primary care doctor you can be comfortable with for a long time, so it might help to ask about the doctor’s personality. How does he communicate? Can I ask her questions via email? Is the doctor friendly or formal in conversation with a patient? How long does it usually take to get an appointment?

The members of the doctor’s office staff are important, too. You’ll be talking to them when you make appointments, make co-payments and deal with insurance issues, and when you need to get information to the doctor. If you find someone you trust who knows a lot about the doctor, ask about the staff, too.

You can call the doctor’s office and ask questions, too. You will probably want to know things like whether lab tests can be done in the office or nearby, and who sees the doctor’s patients when the doctor is on vacation or otherwise unavailable. It might be possible to schedule an appointment just to meet the doctor and see if he or she is a good fit for your family.

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