Doctors aren’t all the same—they may have different specialties, experience levels, and philosophies of care. If you want to find a doctor that you’re compatible with, it’s important to make sure you’re choosing a provider that meets your specific needs.
But how can you establish what type of doctor is the right fit for you or your family members? Here are the different types of general practitioners you might see for a typical office visit, so that you can decide which kind is the right fit for your circumstances.
A standard health insurance plan should provide you with access to any of these health care providers, although in some cases, an OB/GYN may be billed at a higher specialist rate.
Types of primary care physicians
1. Family doctor
A family doctor is just what it sounds like—a physician who can treat your entire family, from the youngest baby to your oldest grandparent.
Family doctors typically are familiar with a wide range of maladies and conditions that affect all age groups, and can treat every member of a family, serving as a one-stop shop for your family’s medical needs. This can be beneficial if multiple members of your family come down with the same illness.
As far as your children are concerned, “one benefit of choosing a family doctor rather than a pediatrician is that he or she would be able to continue to treat your kids as they grow into adulthood,” says David Dragoo, a surgical resident at the Anschutz Medical Campus at University of Colorado.
“This can help a lot since the doctor will likely have a personal relationship with your child or children and have better insights on their medical records,” he adds.
Family medicine practitioners may or may not treat pregnant women and deliver babies—you’ll have to ask your doctor whether this is within his or her comfort zone if you’re planning your family.
Pediatric physicians only see children (and sometimes young adults up to 25) as patients, and are specially trained in illnesses and health conditions affecting youths.
They are well-versed in understanding childhood milestones, and how certain drug therapies may affect a young person.
If you have children under 18 and want to find a physician who is experienced in childhood illnesses and treatment plans, choosing a pediatrician may be a good option for your family.
3. Internal medicine
Internal medicine physicians, or internists, work exclusively with adult patients.
“Internists are generally responsible for treating actual diseases, whereas a family doctor focuses more on illness and wellness,” Dragoo says.
If you have a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, choosing an internist as your primary care provider may be a good idea, as the internist may have more experience in managing your condition than a general family doctor.
You also may choose a specialized internist as your PCP: For instance, people over 65 may wish to choose a geriatric internist to help them cope with aging-related health issues.
Obstetrician/gynecologists (OB-GYNs) focus their practice on the woman’s reproductive system, which includes regular pelvic exams, Pap tests, and maternity care and delivery for pregnant women.
Some OB-GYNs are willing to serve as a woman’s primary care provider, while others aren’t.
If you choose an OB-GYN as your primary care provider, you can consult him or her with all of your medical questions and prescription requests.
However, if you see both a primary care physician and an OB-GYN, you can consult your OB only for treatment and prescription related to your reproductive health needs.
A nurse-practitioner (NP) is a registered nurse who has also completed advanced training in graduate school. Many nurse-practitioners become certified to work with a specific population, such as women, children, or geriatrics, while others care for patients across the entire spectrum of care.
In 19 states and the District of Columbia, nurse-practitioners have the authority to diagnose patients and prescribe medications, just as a physician would do.
In other states, NPs are more limited and aren’t authorized to prescribe medications; however, “from a patient’s perspective, that may not matter so much, because we have relationships with physicians and can get medications prescribed,” says Donald Gardenier, a family nurse practitioner in Bronx, NY.
Gardenier says that the NP’s approach is patient-focused as opposed to the disease-focused approach that many physicians take.
“Nurses are trained to assess the patient and see what they need based on what’s going on with them,” he says.
Tips for choosing a high-quality primary care provider
Once you’ve decided which type of primary care provider is right for each member of your family, it’s important to find the right practitioner. Consider strategies such as:
- Seek out a referral from a trusted friend or family member.
- Look to a regional magazine for a “best doctors” list.
- Check on certificationmatters.org to make sure that your doctor is board-certified.
- Make an appointment for a free “meet and greet” with a doctor, if he or she offers this service. This will give you the opportunity to ask them questions about their background and philosophies of care before deciding to use them.
For a doctor that doesn’t offer a meet and greet, schedule your annual physical with a new PCP to get a sense of whether you’d like to use him or her on an ongoing basis.