What is a primary care physician?

A primary care physician (PCP) is a healthcare provider who helps you manage your health. They’re the first person you talk to when you have a health issue or medical problem that’s not an emergency. PCPs are usually doctors. But some nurses and physician assistants also provide primary care.

What education does a primary care physician need?

Primary care physicians must go through a great deal of education and training. A four-year undergraduate degree is the first step on their path to becoming a physician. Undergraduate studies include pre-medical courses such as chemistry and biology.

Primary care physicians must next be accepted to a four-year medical school. In medical school, potential physicians take courses including anatomy and physiology. In addition, they must participate in various clinical rotations where they learn about the different areas of medicine.

After medical school, a PCP must complete a residency program in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics or gynecology. These programs take three years or more. After residency, some primary care physicians go into practice. Other physicians choose to enter a fellowship program, which is extended training in a specific aspect of medicine such as obstetrics or preventive medicine.

How long does it take to become a primary care physician?

Primary care physicians must attend at least 11 years of schooling. That includes four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school and at least three years in a residency program. Some primary care physicians spend another one to three years in a fellowship program.

What is the average salary of a primary care physician?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of a primary care physician was $207,380 in 2020.

What does a primary care physician do?

You may develop a long-term relationship with your primary care physician. They’ll help 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 well-being.

Primary care physicians 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, including:

  • 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 physician 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 specialist if you need one (like a knee surgeon or a heart doctor).

How can a primary care physician help me?

Primary care physicians can 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. They'll also know when you need more advanced care, like a hospital procedure or a specialist.

Are there different kinds of primary care physicians?

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 infants, children, adolescents and young adults.
  • 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. They serve as part of a team that includes a primary care physician, and the physician has overall responsibility for you.

How do I find a primary care physician?

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, like family members, friends and neighbors.
  • Ask other healthcare professionals you know, like 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.
  • Use a local search tool. Hospitals in your area may offer physician search tools.

How do I choose a primary care physician?

When you’re 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, or by email)?
  • Whom would I talk to when you’re on vacation?

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

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

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A relationship with a primary care physician 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 primary care physician who fits your personality and needs.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/14/2022.

References

  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Primary Care. (https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/primary-care.html) Accessed 7/14/2022.
  • American Medical Association. Family Medicine Specialty Description. (https://www.ama-assn.org/specialty/family-medicine-specialty-description) Accessed 7/14/2022.
  • World Health Organization. Primary Health Care. (https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/primary-health-care) Accessed 7/14/2022.

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