What is a primary care physician? The question seems pretty straightforward, but the answer is not quite simple. If you need to make an appointment to see a doctor for a regular visit, the terminology can get confusing.
Do you need a primary care doctor or an internist? Can you and your children see the same family medicine practitioner? Can your OB/GYN be your primary care physician? At what age should you be seeing a geriatrician? These are just some of the questions that come up when you say to yourself “I think I need to see a doctor.”
The good news is you have options — and they’re not as confusing as they may seem. The basic fact is that everyone needs a primary care physician.
Primary Care for Children
Let’s start with kids. Obviously, children can see a pediatrician. Their other option is to see the same family medicine practitioner (aka family practitioner or family physician) as the rest of the family.
There are many benefits of going the first route. From the pint-sized chairs in the waiting room to the stickers handed out, your child may feel more comfortable in an office that caters to little ones. Plus, the entire staff is trained to work with children exclusively. And who doesn’t love scrubs with Mickey Mouse on them?
But there are also benefits to seeing a family medicine practitioner. Your doctor will be familiar with your family history. A family practice will be able to coordinate office visits for your entire family. What’s more, your child will never outgrow his or her physician.
Primary Care for Adults
Quite simply, an internal medicine physician (also called an internist) is like a pediatrician for adults. They see adults and only adults.
A family medicine practitioner, as we just discussed, can take care of the primary needs of an entire family. If your 5-year-old gets strep, this doctor might go ahead and test you at the same time, for example. Or you can all get flu shots during the same visit.
Primary Care for Women
An OB/GYN has traditionally not been the same thing as a primary care physician. However, over the years, two things have happened.
The first is that OG/GYNs have been offering more wellness services. In fact, one study found that nearly half of all OB/GYNs consider themselves to be primary care physicians.
The second thing is that many women, especially during their reproductive years, simply stop seeing their primary care physician as frequently. A pregnant woman gets her blood pressure checked every visit, has a glucose screening and gets up-to-date on any necessary immunizations.
But is it OK to treat your OB/GYN as your primary care doctor? If you’re generally healthy with no chronic conditions, it could be, but it depends on the OB/GYN you’re using and the specific services he or she offers. It’s a good idea to start by asking your OB/GYN if they consider themselves to be primary care physicians.
Primary Care for Older Adults
Geriatricians have special skills and training to address the needs of those over 65. You still have the option, of course, of seeing either an internist or a family medicine doctor.
Making a Decision
Let’s summarize: If you’re an adult, you can see either a family medicine practitioner or an internist (internal medicine doctor). If you’re a woman, you might also consider using your OB/GYN as your primary care physician. If you’re a senior, you can choose from either an internist, a family medicine practitioner or a geriatrician.
So how do you decide?
If you already have a doctor, ask yourself if you’re happy with the relationship. Do you feel like your doctor meets your needs? Do you have any health challenges that could be better addressed by a different doctor?
If you’re looking for a doctor, is it just for you or is it for you and your children? Do you have any age-related issues that need to be addressed? Whether you’re seeking a diagnosis and treatment, or are interested in preventive care, it’s important to have someone you can turn to.
The only mistake you can really make is to avoid choosing a doctor altogether. If that’s what you’ve been doing, consider taking your health into your own hands right now.
Or perhaps you need to see someone right away, without an appointment. To help you determine the route you should take, our infographic on the differences between primary care, convenient care, and the emergency room can help.