Guide to Primary Care Practitioners (PCP), Family Doctors, and Internists

Medically reviewed by Graham Rogers, MD on August 31, 2016Written by Kimberly Holland on August 31, 2016

Overview

The medical field is vast and filled with titles and names that may be tricky to understand. Take, for example, primary care practitioners (PCPs), family doctors, and internists.

These medical professionals cover a lot of the same territory in treating people, but knowing the differences will help you find the one that’s right for you and your family.

Primary care practitioner (PCP)

The term primary care practitioner (PCP) refers to any of the following types of medical professionals:

  • family practitioner
  • nurse practitioner
  • physician assistant
  • internist

They treat a wide range of health issues and can help coordinate your medical treatment with various specialists.

What do they do and whom do they treat?

When you’re sick, either with a cold or something more serious, you may first visit your PCP. They are trained to treat people of all ages for a wide variety of medical issues, including disease prevention and maintenance. If a condition is beyond their scope, they may refer you to a specialist.

For many of your healthcare needs, you may only need to see a PCP. If your needs go beyond their scope, you may need to see a specialist or another doctor.

A PCP can also help to coordinate medical treatments across many specialties. For example, if you discover you have an infected gallbladder, your PCP may refer you to a gastroenterologist for a consultation and then to a surgeon to have the gallbladder removed. These specialists are responsible for your treatment, but your PCP oversees the entire series of events.

When should you see a PCP?

Whether you’re battling the flu or showing signs of blood sugar problems, your PCP will likely be the first doctor you encounter in your treatment timeline.

Will insurance cover your visit?

Most insurance plans cover visits with a PCP. Some PCPs offer services that won’t be covered by your insurance. Be sure to verify what your plan does and doesn’t cover with your doctor’s office or your insurance company before your visit.

Family doctor

A family doctor can care for practically anyone. In fact, a family doctor may care for every member of a family at all stages of their lives.

What do they do and whom do they treat?

A family doctor is trained to care for a person from infancy to advanced age. They are often the doctor you will see to treat minor problems, like bronchitis, and major problems, like high blood pressure.

Family doctors will often advocate for you. They encourage healthy lifestyle changes for chronic problems. If the doctor also treats other members of the family, they may be able to help you get ahead of potential genetic issues, like obesity, heart disease, and high cholesterol.

For many people, having a doctor who is intimately aware of both your personal and family history can be helpful and comforting. And if your condition goes beyond the scope of your family doctor’s training, they may refer you to a specialist.

What is their training?

Family doctors have completed four years of medical school and three years of residency. They can treat people of all ages.

Their medical school training included a variety of specialties, from gynecology to mental health.

When should you see a family doctor?

A visit to the family doctor is typically step number one in the treatment process. For example, you might go because you have poison ivy and need a prescription. Or you might go because you’ve been having unexplained dizziness and need some help figuring out why.

Will insurance cover your visit?

With a few exceptions, insurance should cover visits to your family doctor. Some family doctors provide services like smoking cessation counseling that not every insurance company covers.

Ask your doctor’s office to confirm if your visits will be covered, or if you should plan to pay out of pocket.

Learn more: Comparing health insurance plans »

Internist

An internist is a doctor who treats a wide variety of conditions in adults only.

What do they do and whom do they treat?

An internist is a doctor only for adults. A family doctor or a PCP can treat people of all ages, but an internist only treats older adolescents and adults.

Like a family doctor or PCP, an internist treats most common medical issues, from sprains and strains to diabetes. If your condition is beyond their scope, they may refer you to a specialist.

When should you see an internist?

An internist is a first-line source of treatment. If you are in need of medical treatment or supervision and are an adult, you may turn to an internist first.

Your internist is trained to treat almost any condition you may develop throughout your adult life. Internists can treat minor issues like a sinus infection or broken wrist.

They can also treat and supervise treatment for more serious conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol.

Will insurance cover your visit?

Most visits to your internist will be covered by your insurance. But some internists provide services that may not be covered by your insurance.

These include mental health counseling and weight loss counseling. Before you begin using one of these services, call your insurance company to find out if it’s covered.

Do you need one?

All individuals need a home base for medical purposes. Having an office where you are known and a doctor you can trust to provide you with care is of utmost importance. If you have a medical emergency, you’ll save a lot of time by knowing exactly where to turn.

In addition, some insurance companies will not cover visits to specialists without a referral from a PCP, family doctor, or internist. Protect yourself against high medical bills by establishing yourself as a member of a practice that you like and trust.

How do I find one?

If you have insurance, start with their list of preferred doctors. This guarantees your family doctor will accept your insurance.

Next, ask your friends and family for recommendations. If you’re new to the area, seek out recommendations from unbiased online resources, such as Healthgrades.com and the National Committee for Quality Assurance.

Tips for choosing a doctor

An in-person visit is the best way to decide if a doctor is right for you. Make an appointment and bring a list of questions that may help you be prepared for that talk. Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • Do you reserve appointments for emergencies? Getting in to see your doctor when you’re sick and can’t wait is important.
  • How can I ask you questions? Some doctors answer emails. Some even make video calls if you’re too sick to come into the office.
  • What’s your treatment philosophy? If you are interested in alternative treatments, you need to find a doctor who supports that.
  • What hospitals are you affiliated with? If your doctor doesn’t have admitting privileges at your preferred hospital, you may want to find one who does, or consider switching hospital allegiances.

It’s also important to consider how convenient it will be to get to the doctor’s office. Choosing a doctor whose office is across town may make it difficult to make it to appointments, especially when you are sick.

CMS Id: 109924