Skip to main content

What Is a Primary Care Provider or Physician?

A primary care provider, or primary care physician (PCP), is what most people simply call their “doctor.” PCPs ensure that patients get the right care, in the right setting, by the most appropriate provider, and in a manner consistent with their desires and values. Primary care is usually provided in an outpatient setting, such as a clinic. However, if you are admitted to the hospital, your PCP may assist in or direct your care, depending on the circumstances.

What Are the Different Types of Primary Care Providers?

A PCP is usually board-certified in family medicine and internal medicine, but a pediatrician (a doctor for children), a gynecologist (a women’s health doctor) or a geriatric physician  (a doctor for seniors and the elderly) also can be considered PCPs.

What Is the Difference between Family Medicine and Internal Medicine?

There are fundamental differences in the focus, training and patient care activities of family medicine and internal medicine providers.

A family medicine provider is someone who cares for every member of a family (from newborns to seniors) at all stages of their lives. Family medicine covers a broad range of medical training in conditions and issues that affect patients of all ages, including infants, children, teens, adults and the elderly. Most family medicine providers have training that focuses on general outpatient care, including diagnosis and management of acute illnesses and chronic conditions, as well as preventive care.

An internal medicine provider treats a wide variety of conditions and illnesses in adults only. Internal medicine providers (sometimes known as internists) focus specifically on the unique needs and health risks that adult patients face. In addition to receiving training in general medical issues, internal medicine doctors also receive significant education and experience in specialty areas like psychiatry, dermatology, orthopedics, palliative medicine, sleep medicine, infectious diseases and other subspecialties. Internists are more likely to provide hospital care, but family medicine providers also can treat patients in an inpatient setting.

Why Do I Need a Primary Care Provider?

Having a PCP is an important part of making sure you stay healthy throughout your life. When you choose a PCP, you are forming a lasting relationship and making sure someone you trust is helping you make important decisions about your health. You and your PCP are partners and will work together to decide the best health and wellness choices for you.

Your PCP can help you with preventive care (healthcare that includes health screenings, routine check-ups, shots, labs, etc.) and can identify and treat common diseases and illnesses. If you need additional care, your PCP can help make sure you are seen by a specialist (a doctor who has more training in a particular disease or illness).

What Are Some Benefits of Primary Care?

You PCP should be knowledgeable and familiar with your health and well-being. This helps personalize your care and save time that may have previously been spent explaining medical history or personal issues. A PCP’s goal is to deliver the care that is right for you — not use a one-size-fits-all approach. Tailored healthcare is easier when you have a meaningful relationship with your provider. Your PCP may recognize health changes that you have not noticed and can keep you up-to-date with annual exams and immunizations.