5 Types of Primary Care Doctors

By now, you likely know that you need a primary care physician. This health care professional holds the keys to long-term health and wellness through their ability to manage a wide range of health issues and develop long-term relationships with patients.

But primary care isn’t one monolithic form of care. There are several types of primary care physicians you may need throughout your life.

Knowing more about the different PCPs available can help you better select the right provider for your situation.

Types of Primary Care Doctors

Not all primary care providers have the same focus areas or specialties, and they typically fall into five main categories. You may work with one or more of these providers during your lifetime as your health needs change:

— Family medicine practitioners

— Internal medicine providers

— Pediatricians

— OB-GYN providers

— Geriatricians

1. Family medicine primary care doctors

Scenario: Your spouse has taken a new job in a different, smaller city than where you’ve been living, so you’ve relocated and are looking to establish a new primary care relationship. Because you’re now in a smaller metro area, there don’t seem to be as many specialists in town. You’re also thinking about having kids in the near future and want to find a practice that can help you navigate starting and raising a family. A family practitioner may be the right answer for your family’s needs.

Family medicine sees the full spectrum of care — from birth to death,” explains Dr. Barbara Bawer, assistant clinical professor in the department of family and community medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

The appeal is that this doctor, who completes three years of training after medical school, can provide primary care for every member of the family, no matter their age. (Some primary care doctors have MDs and others DOs, but the training systems are comparable.) They may also be a better fit in smaller communities with fewer physicians, adds Dr. Richard Seidman, former chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan.

Among the areas in which these doctors can also subspecialize include:

— Women’s health

— Sleep medicine

— Sports medicine

— Gender-affirming care

“Some have entire clinics catered to just those populations,” Bawer adds.

[READ MD vs. DO: What’s the Difference?]

2. Internal medicine primary care doctors

Scenario: You’re in your mid-40s and have been feeling a bit sluggish and out of breath. You’ve put on some weight in the past few years, and you feel like something is off. An internal medicine physician may be able to piece together what’s happening and help you manage chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, obesity and diabetes.

Internal medicine doctors specialize in diagnosing, treating and preventing disease in adult patients (typically those 18 or older and even up to geriatric patients, though age ranges can vary). They differ from a family medicine practitioner in terms of the scope of training and scope of practice.

“Required internal medicine training centers on common general medical conditions but also includes significant experience in each of the internal medicine subspecialties, such as endocrinology, rheumatology, infectious diseases and cardiology,” explains Dr. Sophia Tolliver, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Internal medicine doctors also receive training in specialties such as:



— Ophthalmology


— Otorhinolaryngology

— Nonoperative orthopedics

— Palliative medicine

— Sleep medicine

— Geriatrics

— Rehabilitation medicine

Internist care is typically rendered in a hospital setting, which means training usually includes an emphasis on inpatient and intensive hospital care.

This type of physician would need additional training to treat children, and they don’t handle women’s health.

[SEE: Health Screenings You Need Now.]

3. Pediatric primary care doctors

Scenario: You’re in your second trimester of pregnancy, and all seems to be going well. It’s time to start looking for a pediatrician who will take care of your baby once you give birth. It’s smart to research pediatricians and make an appointment to meet with them before the baby comes.

When someone uses the term “primary care doctor,” most people think of a provider who works with adults. But pediatricians shouldn’t be overlooked because they provide important preventive care, such as childhood immunizations.

Pediatric practitioners work with children up to 18 or 21 years of age, depending on the practice. These providers are experts on child development. They are well positioned to recognize and react when a child isn’t meeting developmental milestones or contracts common childhood ailments, such as chickenpox or earaches.

Many pediatricians work in an outpatient setting, but some pediatricians practice inpatient medicine and take care of children in the hospital. There’s also a “hybrid specialty,” called internal medicine-pediatrics, or med-peds.

These providers are trained to evaluate both children and adults in the inpatient and outpatient setting.

[READ: How Do I Find the Best Pediatrician for My Child?]

4. OB-GYN primary care doctors

Scenario: You’re in your 20s and have been having severe cramps every time you get your period. You’re also starting to think about wanting kids someday. It’s definitely time to see an OB-GYN to address the excessive cramping and talk about family planning.

These providers specialize in women’s health, providing care like routine pelvic exams, Pap smears and family planning.

“Some women of childbearing age elect to use their OB-GYN physician as their primary care physician,” Seidman notes.

However, these providers may be less able to address health concerns that are not related specifically to women’s health, such as a sinus infection or digestive problems.

5. Geriatric primary care doctors

Scenario: You’ve recently retired and have a few chronic health conditions. You generally feel pretty good, but you want to make sure your conditions and medications are optimized for your golden years. This is when a geriatric primary care physician may be best suited to help.

Much like a pediatrician takes special care of babies, children and teenagers, geriatricians care for those at the other end of the age spectrum.

Geriatricians, who usually receive family medicine or internal medicine training, monitor for common conditions that increase in prevalence with age. They also help seniors manage chronic diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, osteoporosis and memory loss.

Patients are usually advised to consider switching to a geriatrician once they’ve turned 65 or when their medical needs demand a more age-focused management approach.

Geriatricians work in both outpatient and inpatient settings as well as with nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to treat residents.

No matter where you see a geriatrician, working with this type of primary care provider can be a powerful means of staying healthier well into your golden years.

A Team Approach

Keep in mind: In many practices, several caregivers — not just a single doctor or provider — can offer the right help when needed.

“Primary care is a team sport,” explains Dr. Billy Zhang, an internal medicine physician with Providence St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Irvine, California.

Nurse practitioners, or advanced practice nurses, and physician assistants — both of whom may be able to prescribe medications, depending on the state — play an ever-increasing role in providing primary care services to patients. This ability is particularly important as a shortage of primary care physicians has limited access to care.

These team members, along with other health care professionals and support staff, work closely with physicians to provide continuity of care that puts patients at the center of the practice in a more cost-effective way, as they tend to bill at a lower rate than a physician.

Choosing a Primary Care Doctor

When it comes time to find a doctor or primary care practice, there are key areas to research first, especially when it comes to cost, says Michael Urban, an assistant professor at Columbia University Programs in Occupational Therapy in New York.

He advises looking into:

— Whether your doctor is in network. Most insurance companies have a search function for in-network physicians and their locations.

— The details of your insurance plan, including copays, deductibles and any out-of-pocket costs you may incur

— Which provider comes with the best value. Make a comparison list to determine which provider you can see with the least hassle when an urgent need crops up. Can you drive to the office? If there’s on-site parking, is it free? Those questions can help you develop a fuller picture of what exactly it’ll cost to visit the doctor.

In addition to researching cost, Urban also recommends:

— Checking with the doctor’s licensing board to see their record, such as any currently pending licensure actions or a high record of past actions. These disciplinary actions could be a red flag. You can search for a doctor via the Federation of State Medical Boards’ DocInfo website.

— Finding out which hospital the practice or doctor is affiliated with, along with other practical considerations, such as their opening hours and what procedures are in place for urgent needs outside of those hours. How long will you need to wait to get an appointment for routine care versus emergency needs?

Waiting until you’re sick to find a provider isn’t the best way to go about it, Urban adds. Start the search before you need a doctor so they can get to know you when you’re well and set a health baseline.

Once you’ve found a doctor, if you don’t feel comfortable with the provider, note what bothered you and shop around.

“Trust your own instincts,” Urban advises. “When it comes down to it, you are your best judge of what you need. If the answers you’re finding don’t seem right, then maybe look around.”

Bottom Line

Primary care is preventive care, Bawer says, and it can make a significant difference in a patient’s lives.

“If I can help you understand how best to feed your body, how best to move your body, how best to rest your body and mind, how to cope with the world around you, etc., then I can help you avoid a lifetime of medication, multiple appointments, symptoms that affect your quality of life and quite literally, can save your life or at least prolong it,” she explains.

More from U.S. News

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5 Types of Primary Care Doctors originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 05/15/24: This story was published at an earlier date and has been update with new information.

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