Who is a Primary Care Physician?

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To stay healthy, you shouldn’t wait until you’re sick before seeing your primary care physician. You need to have a healthcare provider or a team of providers (internist, cardiologist, dentist, optometrist), especially as you age. They’re also responsible for taking a proactive approach to ensure you remain healthy.

A primary care physician is crucial for preventive care: for discovering disease in its early stages. They’re usually someone’s first contact with the healthcare system, making them essential for living a healthy life.

Who Is A Primary Care Physician?

Primary care physicians are medical personnel trained to diagnose, treat, and prevent a range of illnesses and other threats to your health. In addition, they provide comprehensive care for people with chronic long-term conditions, such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and other acute problems like colds & allergic reactions.

They’re the go-to medical personnel whenever you or your family member needs medical care (unless it’s a life-threatening emergency, in which case you should call 911).

Types Of Primary Care Physicians

  • Family doctors: physicians who treat patients across all age groups and genders. They have knowledge that cuts across pediatrics, adult medicine, geriatric medicine, musculoskeletal care, and obstetrics.
  • Pediatricians: physicians who provide specialized, general, and preventive care for children from newborns to infants across different age groups until adulthood. A pediatrician is trained to diagnose and treat many childhood illnesses, ranging from minor health issues to life-threatening diseases, e.g., common colds, ear infections, bronchitis, constipation, and asthma.
  • Internists: medical physicians who specialize in treating adults. They treat a wide range of acute and chronic conditions e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and asthma. They may receive additional training in areas of focused practice such as geriatric medicine, hospice palliative care, or other forms of medical practice.
  • Geriatricians (a focused area in internal medicine): physicians who treat geriatric patients. They are specialists in treating social problems and complex medical conditions caused by aging, e.g., insomnia, osteoarthritis, and dementia.
  • Obstetrician-gynecologists (OB-GYNs): doctors who specialize in the treatment of diseases and disorders of the female reproductive system. OB-GYNs treat patients with conditions affecting menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum conditions, and the internal and external reproductive organs. 
  • Physician assistants and nurse practitioners: primary care physicians extenders who provide primary care in certain practices. Physician assistants often have their work supervised by a physician.

What do primary care physicians do?

Primary care physicians practice general healthcare and can address a range of basic health concerns. They are often first-contact care providers for people with undiagnosed symptoms, signs, or health concerns that are not organ or problem-specific. People mostly turn to them first when they’re faced with a health issue. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Preventive care ensures the detection and prevention of medical problems and serious diseases before they transform into major problems. Some examples of preventive care are flu shots, immunizations, and annual check-ups.
  • Primary care physicians can ensure that chronic conditions and diseases such as cancer, stroke, and diabetes are detected and diagnosed early.
  • They help patients to manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes mellitus, by ensuring they stick to their healthcare plan, use their medications, recommend foods to eat and avoid, etc.
  • Making referrals to medical specialists. They do this when the patient’s condition is severe, and they need special care. They make sure the patient gets healthcare with the best available specialist: dermatologists, pulmonologists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, orthopedics, etc.

Benefits Of Primary Care Providers

Having a primary care physician has many benefits, including:

  • They follow your growth and are part of your life: This happens when they’ve treated and attended to your health concerns for a long time.
  • They understand your personal and family health history: Families have close genetic backgrounds, environments, and lifestyles that may cause certain health conditions to run in the family. A primary care physician can use this knowledge to make more accurate diagnoses, be alert about red flags in your medications, and monitor your health changes over the years.
  • They manage your health: They’re responsible for managing chronic conditions, treating acute situations, and performing minor surgical procedures: allergy injections, colonoscopies, skin biopsies, and suturing lacerations.
  • They find the right specialist: If the need arises, they can help you find the right specialist to treat your health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses.

Primary care providers are crucial, and research proves that people with primary care providers are better able to manage chronic diseases, don’t spend as much time on the hospital bed, and have better healthcare service.

How Do You Know If A Physician Meets Your Goals?

There are different types of primary care physicians, and there are various things to consider when choosing one. First, be clear about your health goals when searching for a primary care physician. Then, consider what level of care you want before considering other factors such as distance, scheduling, language, etc. Do you need round-the-clock care or occasional annual/semi-annual checkups?

What To Consider When Choosing A Primary Care Physician

  • Location: consider the proximity of your home or office to the doctor’s and how much time it will take you to reach them if you use public transport. Location is important if it’s a barrier to you obtaining health care. If location is not a major barrier, consider the healthcare entity that meets your needs and provides you with quality care despite its location. Remember, your health is what’s most important despite the distance you have to travel to get what’s best for you.
  • Scheduling: confirm that your work schedule and your children’s school schedule are compatible with the doctor’s office hours. Does the doctor’s office have on-call services when they’re needed? How long of a wait is there to see your doctor for a visit e.g. within the week or 4-6 weeks or longer?
  • Language: this is a barrier if they can’t communicate effectively in your preferred language.
  • Office policies: what is the office policy for rescheduling or canceling appointments? Is there a financial penalty for missing appointments?
  • Online access: is telemedicine an option for the doctor? Is there an online portal for you to ask crucial questions, check your health history, view test results, and schedule appointments? 

Tips for Finding the Best Primary Care Physician around You

1. Look for in-network doctors.

Start by seeking insurance coverage to help reduce healthcare costs. Affordable or subsidized options are available through the Affordable Care Act.

Once you’ve found health insurance, cut down on costs by going to an in-network doctor or selecting a PCP (primary care physician) that your insurance plan covers. Most insurance companies will provide you with a list of primary care physicians who are part of your network. In-network primary care physicians have contracts with insurance companies and provide care at pre-negotiated rates. You can choose to work with a PCP who is not in your network, but this will be more expensive.

While going through the list of in-network doctors, you should note that some are hospitalists, meaning that they only treat patients in hospitals or during periods of hospitalization and do not involve themselves in ongoing outpatient patient management. Hospitalists can’t be primary outpatient healthcare physicians. They are responsible for inpatient primary care services..

If you’re not on health insurance and are paying from your pocket, you should talk to the prospective doctor about how much office visits cost. Knowing how much is involved before you need their service will help you plan your visits.

2. Choose a doctor for your health needs.

As indicated above, there are many different types of primary care physicians. Choose a primary care physician based on your health condition and treatment needs. You can find a primary care physician easily by looking them up online and distinguishing their area of interest, e.g., diabetes, fitness, nutrition, etc.

3. Ease of access.

Your doctor must be easily accessible from your home, office, or children’s school. You need to know the ease of finding inexpensive and safe parking, and the time it will take you to reach them if you’re using public transport.

4. Ask for referrals.

You may be more comfortable visiting a physician if they’re recommended by a friend, colleague, or family, but this shouldn’t dictate your final choice. It’s a good idea to ask for information from those who are knowledgeable.

If you have a relationship with another healthcare professional, you can ask them to refer a primary care physician to you, especially if you’re moving to a new location. They’d know the best physician for you. You can also use other resources such as Top Doctors Magazine or similar publications, where doctors nominate their colleagues that they feel are the best in the field.

Conclusion

Primary care physicians play a crucial role in ensuring you live a healthy life. They’re responsible for diagnosing and treating several conditions affecting people across different stages of life. However, they also help prevent these conditions and ensure healthy living.

Jerome Puryear

Dr. Jerome Puryear Jr., MD, MBA, is a Health and Well-being coach and renowned Obesity in Medicine expert. With a holistic perspective on patient care, Dr. JP is dedicated to helping individuals maximize their health and well-being.