What is a Primary Care Provider? 7 Types of Physicians and What They Do

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Robert A. Baldor, MD Robert A. Baldor, MD View Profile
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Choosing the right primary care doctor (or "pcp," primary care provider) can be a daunting task, especially if you’re looking for yourself, your children of different ages, and possibly your aging parents. There are many medical specialties and sub-specialties. But if you are lucky, you’ll only need on type of care on a regular basis: primary care (PM). Or, is it family medicine (FM)?

When seeking a primary care provider, there are several choices, including a pediatrician for children, a family medicine physician or advanced practice provider for whole family, or an internal medicine physician for adults. Which one is right for you and your family?

To help you make the choice, here are the differences between family physicians, internists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and pediatricians.

Family Medicine vs Primary Care

While family medicine and primary care practitioners are trained to treat a lot of the same types of patients and conditions, there are differences. Here’s a quick look at the type of care each does and doesn’t provide.

What do family practice physicians do?

Dr. Robert Baldor, founding chair of the new Department of Family Medicine for the University of Massachusetts Medical School-Baystate campus, says if a family is looking for one provider to care for every member, choosing a family medicine physician might be the best choice.

If you have general health concerns that can be taken care of in the office, a family medicine provider can address issues like:

  • Annual checkups for infants, children, adults and seniors
  • Disease prevention and health maintenance
  • New and chronic illnesses like hypertension, diabetes and COPD, along with injuries, and much more.

A family medicine practice encompasses pediatrics, adolescent medicine, adult medicine and geriatrics.

Family practitioners also provide immunizations, family planning and contraception, skin care, join injections and other treatments related to sports injuries, and can coordinate care with specialists when needed, including mental health providers.

Practitioners are trained in family medicine care for the most common outpatient conditions and make diagnoses regardless of age – over a person’s lifespan.

“We take care of infants, children, adults and the elderly,” he says. “Family physicians are trained to take care of the most common conditions, and we do it for the entire family, sometimes three or four generations.”

Family medicine practitioners know the difference between a child’s fever and an adult’s fever and the course each will take, and they are able to treat both.

“Why see a family medicine physician?” Dr. Baldor says. “We take care of everyone in your family, so convenience is huge. We eventually come to understand all the pieces of your life.

There are benefits to choosing a family medicine physician, just like there are benefits choosing a pediatrician or an internist, and you don’t have to have children to choose a family doctor. What’s most important is finding a provider with whom you are comfortable.

How to choose a primary care provider

Like family medicine providers, primary care providers (PCP) can help manage your routine care such as physicals, screenings, vaccinations, and more. Primary care is different from family medicine because many PCPs have specialized expertise in certain areas. For example, PCPs include:

  • Pediatricians: Doctors who care for newborns, infants, children, and adolescents
  • Geriatricians: Doctors who care for older adults with medical needs related to aging
  • Internists: Doctors who care for adults of all ages for a variety of medical problems
  • Obstetricians/gynecologists: Doctors who care for women, particularly those of childbearing age

You may see a variety of specialists for specific issues – your primary care provider will refer you, if needed. Those specialists care for issues with the heart, lungs, vascular, digestive, women’s issues, surgery, and more.

But primary care physicians are trained to deal with common issues people face every day. The emphasis is on outpatient medicine, continuity of care (which means your care team is working together consistently), health maintenance and disease prevention.

What is an internal medicine doctor?

Internal medicine doctors care mostly for adults. They specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease in adults, and offer care for a wide variety of health conditions. They treat patients inside and outside of the hospital, so they have been trained in hospital and ICU care. Some get additional training in a specialized area like cardiology or endocrinology, for example. Internists also receive hospital-based training.

What is a pediatrician?

Pediatricians care for children from birth to 18 years old. They are trained for both in-office care and hospital care, as well. When a child reaches 18 years of age, they must transition to an internist or family medicine provider who will then care for them possibly for the rest of their lives. There is not need to transition with a family medicine practitioner. In that case, you stay with your doctor throughout your lifetime.

While PC practices are staffed with doctors, most practices also include other care providers in the form of nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA).

NPs and PAs

NPs and PAs may see new patients, perform follow-up visits, perform yearly physical exams and diagnose and treat most sicknesses. Both work in clinics, hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, private physician/NP/PA practices, nursing homes, schools, colleges, and public health departments.

What is a nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have a master’s or doctorate degree and clinical experience. NPs provide care and educate patients with a focus on health maintenance, counseling, and disease prevention. They also have a specialty area, which they choose during training. Some specialties include family medicine, neonatal (care for newborns), pediatrics, geriatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, acute (emergency or intensive) care, and occupational (workplace) health, and more. NPs may also serve as Certified Nurse Midwives and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist.

What is a physician assistant?

Physician assistants are licensed health professionals who must pass a certification exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. They do not choose a specialty but must complete a clinical rotation through various specialties during their training. PAs work under the supervision of a physician to provide preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic healthcare services. They take medical histories, examine patients, treat patients, order and read lab tests, order and read X-rays, make diagnoses, and provide treatment for minor injuries.

Here are some other tasks that NPs and PAs share:

  • Assist the doctor in your surgery
  • Care for you when you are in the hospital or a nursing home
  • Counsel you on preventing illness
  • Order and explain your tests

No matter what kind of primary care provider you choose, your provider and practice team will care for everything from colds and sore throats to helping patients quit smoking, lose weight, and develop and exercise plan. They also treat conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, and even grief.

What Kind of Primary Care is Right for You?

When it comes to choosing a doctor, only you can make that decision. It all comes down to your own personal preferences and individual and family needs.

Learn more about our providers and their specialties:

  1. Family Medicine
  2. Internal Medicine
  3. Pediatrics
  4. Geriatric Medicine
  5. Obstetrics & Gynecology
  6. NPs
  7. PAs
what can an np or pa can do for you

NPs and PAs are Here to Help

Your healthcare team includes nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA). Download our quick reference guide to learn more about these advanced practice providers. 

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