A primary care provider (PCP) is a doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner who serves as your main health care provider for non-emergency needs, routine screenings, and wellness visits.
There are several different types of primary care doctors, including: family practitioners (who treat infants, children, and adults), internists (who treat adults only), pediatricians (who treat children only) and geriatricians (who specialize in the medical concerns of elderly patients). Your doctor may be a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). Both are licensed physicians, though they receive slightly different training.
Advanced practice providers, such as nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA), can also serve as primary care providers and are trained in diagnosing and treating medical issues. Some NPs and PAs focus on primary care, while others specialize in areas of medicine like orthopedics, dermatology, oncology or cardiology.
What Does a Primary Care Provider Do?
Provide preventive care: Your PCP can guide you in adopting healthy lifestyle changes, such as diet, exercise, sleep, stress management and smoking cessation, to improve your overall health. They can also provide your annual physical and recommend age-appropriate screenings, such as a colonoscopy or mammogram. Ideally, you should see your primary care provider once a year for a wellness visit or annual physical. If you have any non-emergency health concerns throughout the year, you have someone you can visit.
Diagnose and treat common health issues: Your primary care provider can address many common health concerns, such as a respiratory illness, sore throat, headache, urinary infection, and back pain. A PCP can also prescribe medications for acute and chronic conditions as needed.
Manage chronic health conditions: Your PCP can help manage ongoing medical concerns like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and depression. They also have experience in managing multiple medical treatments and medications, and understand how these treatments may interact with one another.
Refer you to a specialist: When you need additional care for a medical issue, a primary care provider can refer you to a medical specialist, such as a cardiologist, orthopedic surgeon, psychiatrist, or urologist. Your PCP can also help coordinate your care if you see multiple specialists. For example, if you have diabetes and heart disease, you may need to see an endocrinologist and cardiologist, with your PCP serving to coordinate your care.
Help you navigate care transitions: A PCP can also provide support as you experience transitions in your health care, such as when you go home after a hospital stay or enter rehabilitation after surgery.
Why Do You Need a Primary Care Provider?
It is a good idea to have an established primary care provider before you experience health issues. That way, if you notice unusual symptoms, you have someone who knows your medical history and can provide treatment or make a referral to a specialist.
However, if you don’t currently have a primary care provider and have a non-emergency medical issue, it is best to go to urgent care. Many urgent care centers can refer you to a primary care provider for follow-up care.
Finding a Primary Care Provider
When searching for a primary care provider, you’ll first want to check your insurance policy to see which providers are “in-network.” Also consider whether you’d like to see a PCP near your home or workplace. Ask family, friends, and colleagues for their recommendations. If you have any chronic health issues, such as diabetes or asthma, you may consider asking the office staff if the provider has experience managing your condition.
Your PCP should be someone with whom you are comfortable having honest conversations about your health. Look for a provider who takes the time to listen to your health concerns and answer your questions.
To find a primary care provider near you, visit pardeehospital.org/primarycare