A primary care physician (PCP) is a medical doctor trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of illnesses and injuries in the general population. They may refer you to specialists for additional care.
Primary care is typically your first step in addressing a healthcare need, such as an illness, injury, or other health concern, or performing routine examinations for preventive care. In the past, a family doctor typically fulfilled that role. Today, many different types of healthcare professionals provide primary care. These can include:
- family medicine doctors
- internal medicine doctors
- healthcare professionals in clinic settings
In a large 2019
The study defined high-value care as cancer screenings, recommended diagnostic and preventive care, diabetes care, counseling, and medical treatment.
A primary care physician is a medical doctor who’s trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat a broad array of illnesses and injuries in the general population. They can also perform regularly scheduled exams, such as physicals, and order routine blood work. These measures may help prevent or identify health issues.
Primary care physicians provide comprehensive care — which means they can address chronic, long-term conditions like diabetes mellitus as well as acute problems like bronchitis, allergic reactions, or colds and flu. They can also administer vaccines and refer to specialized healthcare professionals for more advanced care.
Training and qualifications
Becoming a primary care physician is a lengthy
After 4 years of college for a bachelor’s degree, prospective doctors attend medical school, which takes an additional 4 years. Medical school graduates earn either an MD (medical doctor) or DO (doctor of osteopathy) degree.
Once a doctor has earned his/her medical degree, they must complete a residency. During residency, doctors study a particular medical specialty for an additional 3—7 years, depending on their field of medicine.
Some physicians then complete a fellowship, which is even more specific to an area of focus and can last for 1—3 years. Primary care physicians usually study either:
- family medicine
- internal medicine
Many doctors decide to become board certified. To become board certified, doctors must complete a residency at an approved medical facility. They must also take a rigorous exam that tests their knowledge of their chosen field.
Primary care physicians can practice in a wide variety of settings, including:
- medical clinics
- private or group practices
- long-term care facilities
- outpatient and inpatient hospital settings
When you see a primary care doctor, you can expect to have access to a full range of health services. Let’s take a closer look at the types of services a primary care physician can provide.
Wellness and prevention screenings
Primary care physicians commonly check for:
- high blood pressure
- other risk factors for heart disease
- high cholesterol
- diabetes mellitus
- breast, cervical, prostate, and colorectal cancers
- developmental disorders
- status of immunizations to prevent illness
- sexually transmitted diseases
- signs of domestic violence
Acute illness and injury care
If you visit a primary care doctor because you’re sick, injured, or have symptoms that concern you, a doctor will likely be able to:
- perform lab tests, including blood tests, to diagnose your condition
- prescribe appropriate medications for your condition
- check for interactions with other medicines you’re taking
- conduct an EKG (electrocardiogram) to evaluate your heart
- do spirometry tests to assess your lung function
- treat acute conditions like asthma attacks, migraine attacks, or urinary tract infections
- provide wound care
- manage fever or dehydration
- do preliminary tests to check for broken bones
- splint, cast, or brace injured limbs
- treat minor skin infections, bites, rashes, or muscle strains or sprains
- connect you with mental health resources in your community
- assess your need to see a specialist
If you have a long-term (chronic) health condition, a primary care physician can:
- coordinate care with specialists
- prescribe medications to manage your condition and change them if they stop working, adjusting when needed
- help you put together a diet, exercise, and self-care plan
- monitor drug interactions if you’re being treated for multiple conditions
- perform necessary lab tests to monitor your health and progress
- connect you with resources related to your condition
Primary care vs. emergency care
While a primary care physician can diagnose and treat and wide range of medical conditions, serious and life threatening situations call for emergency care. These can include:
- symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain and difficulty breathing
- symptoms of stroke, which can include slurred speech, drooping face, and numbness on one side of the body
- severe injury or blood loss
- moderate to severe allergic reactions
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- loss of consciousness or change in mental status, such as disorientation, confusion, or inability to stay awake
- seizure, especially a first seizure
- symptoms of a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis)
- rapid pulse
- broken bones and fractures
- fever with neck stiffness or rash
- head injury
- sudden changes in your vision
- sudden numbness in arms, legs, or face
Several kinds of physicians provide primary care. Here’s a brief description of how they differ from each other.
Family doctors: These physicians treat patients of all ages. They are trained in adult medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, geriatric medicine, and musculoskeletal care. In a typical family medical practice, around 10—15% of the patients are children.
Internists: These doctors practice internal medicine and specialize in treating adults. Like family doctors, they treat many acute and chronic conditions. Therefore, they receive training in many different fields, including endocrinology, rheumatology, neurology, orthopedics, geriatrics, and rehabilitation.
Pediatricians: Pediatricians complete special training that focuses on wellness, development, and treatment of the conditions that can affect babies, children, and teenagers up to the age of 21. Many pediatricians are primary care providers for children, but others may specialize further in a particular field such as pediatric neurology or cardiology.
Geriatricians: These physicians specialize in treating older adults. Because of their advanced training, they are especially adept at treating issues like insomnia, dementia, and balance problems. There are only around 7,123 certified geriatricians in the United States, so it may be harder to locate a geriatrician in your area than it is to find an internist or family doctor.
Obstetrician-gynecologists (OB-GYN): These medical doctors specialize in women’s health and have training and expertise in reproductive health, pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum conditions. Some OB-GYNs provide many types of general health services, similar to an internist or family doctor, while others only focus on female reproductive health.
Nurse practitioners and physician assistants: In some primary care practices, you may be treated by a nurse practitioner (NP) or physician assistant (PA). These highly trained professionals are increasingly important in primary care. They must earn a master’s degree, pass a certification exam, and maintain state licensure to practice. PAs are under the supervision of a physician, and about half of the states in the United States require physician oversight for NPs.
Because a primary care physician can have a big impact on your health, finding a doctor you trust and feel comfortable with can benefit your health. The Healthline FindCare tool can provide options in your area if you don’t already have a doctor.
Some practical matters to consider when choosing a primary care doctor include:
- Insurance: A good starting place for finding a doctor is your health insurance plan. If your plan requires you to use an in-network doctor, start by looking at the list of participating doctors.
- Location: How close is the doctor to your home or office? If you plan to use public transportation to get to the doctor’s office, how long will the trip take?
- Hours: Are the doctor’s office hours compatible with your work schedule or your child’s school schedule? Does the office have weekend, evening, or on-call services if you need them?
- Language: Can the doctor or members of his staff communicate well in a language you prefer using?
- Board certification: You can see whether the doctor you’re considering is board certified by using the Certification Matters tool offered by the American Board of Medical Specialties.
- Online access: Does the primary care team offer telemedicine options? Do they offer an online portal where you can ask the doctor questions, schedule appointments, see your test results, and access your health history?
- Policies: What are the policies if you need to cancel or reschedule appointments? Does the office offer payment plans if you need a procedure that is costly and isn’t covered by insurance?
- Other factors: This can include a shared cultural competence, a supportive approach to gender-affirming care, and other factors that help you feel comfortable with a doctor.
You may want to think about the following questions:
- Is your doctor trained to meet any special needs you may have?
- Does your primary care doctor need to be prepared to accommodate certain disabilities?
- Do you want a doctor who is informed about the special challenges healthcare can present to sexual abuse, domestic violence, trauma, and racism survivors?
- Do you want your doctor to understand the challenges faced by transgender, genderqueer, or intersex people?
- If natural remedies and alternative therapies are important to you, is the doctor educated about them?
Once you’ve settled on a short list of possible primary care physicians, contact the office to schedule an appointment.
When you call the office, notice how the staff interacts with you. Since you’ll often be communicating with the office staff, it’s important to feel comfortable with them, too.
When you meet with the primary care physician, bring a list of questions that are important to you.
Notice whether the doctor is listening to your concerns. It may feel uncomfortable to think of a doctor’s appointment as an interview, but it can also be empowering. It may help you to remember that you and your doctor are forming a partnership to take care of your health.
It’s okay if it takes more than one interview to find the right doctor for you.
The following includes frequently asked questions about primary care.
What is the difference between a doctor and a primary care physician?
A primary care physician is a type of doctor who can help prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of health conditions. They are typically your first stop when you need medical care, such as treatment for an illness, a vaccination, or a routine physical. Other types of doctors may specialize in certain health conditions or body systems.
What is an example of a primary care physician?
Primary care doctors can include pediatricians, family medicine doctors, and internal medicine doctors, among others.
What kind of doctor treats the whole body?
Primary care doctors are doctors who provide comprehensive care for a wide range of health issues affecting the whole body. This can include conducting wellness screenings and diagnosing and treating infections and injuries, and providing other non-emergency medical care. They may also help coordinate care with specialists and manage chronic conditions.
Additionally, some people may also refer to neuropathic doctors as doctors who treat the “whole body.” These alternative medicine practitioners typically focus on addressing physical, mental, genetic, environmental, and other factors that can affect your whole body.
Primary care physicians are doctors who work to prevent, diagnose, and treat a wide range of conditions that affect people at varying life stages.
Primary care physicians have the expertise and training to:
- screen you for health conditions
- keep your immunizations up to date
- conduct tests to diagnose your condition
- treat you when you’re sick or injured
- help you take care of yourself if you’re dealing with a chronic condition
- refer you to specialists if needed
Some primary care physicians focus on a particular patient population like children or older adults. Some are family physicians who treat patients of all ages.
If you’re looking for a primary care doctor, it’s a good idea to find out everything you can about the doctor’s practice in advance. Building a relationship with a primary care doctor who’s a good fit for you is likely to improve your health outcomes now and in the future.