January 16, 2022

What Is a Primary Care Provider?

This type of provider is often your first stop for care

Masked doctor and child point at their shoulders during appointment

According to Healthcare.gov, a primary care provider is “a physician (MD or DO), nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist or physician assistant, as allowed under state law, who provides, coordinates or helps a patient access a range of healthcare services.”

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While this technical definition is true, your primary care provider can also do and become so much more in your and your family’s life.

“Primary care physicians do much more than give you physicals and refer you to specialists,” says family medicine specialist Sarah Pickering Beers, MD.

Indeed, research suggests their goal is to keep you out of harm’s way — and help you avoid the emergency room, operating room and intensive care unit.

“Studies show that in states and areas of our country where there is more primary care, health outcomes are superior, with lower costs,” says Dr. Pickering Beers. “People are less likely to be hospitalized, and death rates are lower for cancer, heart disease and stroke.

“Infant mortality rates are also lower, birth weights are higher, and rates of immunizations against once deadly diseases are higher.”

So, how can you find the right primary care provider? Read on to learn more.

Why primary care is important

Primary care should make a dramatic impact on your health. Why? Because primary care doctors are trained to recognize and manage a wide range of acute (short-term) and chronic (persistent and recurring) health problems. “And they get to know their patients (and their health issues) well,” says Dr. Pickering Beers.

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Your primary care doctor doesn’t work alone, though. They guide a whole team of healthcare professionals focused on helping you set realistic goals for managing health issues and staying well through lifestyle changes.

Today, many primary care providers have taken on an expanded role. We break down six types of primary providers you could visit.

What is a primary care team?

If you’re making an appointment with a primary care provider for the first time, or switching to another doctor, it’s important to understand the different roles and titles of those physicians.

1. Primary care physicians (PCPs)

PCPs oversee the team providing primary care for you and your family. They diagnose and treat a wide variety of acute and chronic health problems, and connect you with the appropriate services for routine and specialty care. This includes:

  • Internal medicine physicians. Trained to provide acute and chronic care for adults of all ages, they specialize in health screenings and management of common adult health problems. Internists are adept at caring for patients with a complex combination of conditions.
  • Family medicine physicians. Family physicians provide wellness, preventive and acute and chronic disease care across the lifespan. They treat entire families, from newborns to the elderly. Their training includes internal medicine, pediatrics, women’s healthcare and mental health care.
  • Pediatricians. Pediatricians are trained to provide acute and chronic care for infants, children and teens. They offer guidance to parents on their children’s growth and development, and ensure that children receive the right schedule of immunizations against childhood diseases.

2. Advanced practice providers

Advanced practice providers are certified and licensed to provide much of the same preventive, acute and chronic care as your primary care doctor. They can assess, diagnose, treat, prescribe and educate you about your condition(s) and wellness. Advanced practice providers include:

  • Nurse practitioners (NPs). Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who go on to earn a master’s degree from nursing school. They work with your primary care doctor to help manage acute and chronic conditions, and perform preventive exams. They may serve as your only primary care provider, especially if you live in an area that is medically underserved.
  • Physician assistants (PAs). Physician assistants earn a master’s degree after intensive study in a PA program, usually based in a school of medicine. PAs work as a team with your primary care doctor to improve access to quality care.

3. Resident doctors

These doctors-in-training work under your primary care doctor’s supervision during their first years of practice after medical school (residency). They provide advanced medical care and assist you in managing your health.

4. Clinical pharmacists (PharmDs)

Clinical pharmacists are residency-trained to manage chronic diseases, and can prescribe and adjust medication until your condition is well-controlled. They may work as a team with your physician or see you independently.

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5. Nurse care coordinators

These registered nurses (RNs) assess your health needs, become your advocate and help you navigate the healthcare system. They also help you manage chronic illnesses and prevent health problems.

6. Medical assistants (MAs)

Medical assistants prepare you and your physician for your visit. They take your history and vital signs, update your chart, call in prescriptions, help with insurance and assist the team in many ways.

It takes a primary care team to safeguard your health

All of these primary caregivers work to provide you and your family with comprehensive, continuous and compassionate care. But they can’t work in isolation — they need your help.

“My best advice for patients looking to make the most out of every visit is to come prepared with a list of questions and any notes about symptoms they have been experiencing,” Dr. Pickering Beers advises. “Share your health goals with us so we can work together to help you enjoy a longer, healthier life.”

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