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Which kind of provider should you choose for primary care?

May 20, 2020

There are many medical specialties and sub-specialties. But if you’re lucky, you’ll only need one type of care on a regular basis: primary care (PM). Or, is it family medicine (FM)?

The difference between family medicine and primary care

While FM and PC 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.

Family Medicine: What’s it about and who is it for?

Family medicine is built around the idea of treating an entire social unit — or family — as opposed to a specific type of patient (e.g. adults, children, women, etc.), a specific part of the body (e.g. cardiology), or providing a specialized type of care (e.g. surgery).

As a result, family medicine providers (including doctors and nurse practitioners) are trained to deal with the entire spectrum of health issues and needs that might be encountered by all the members of a family. This broad skill set is particularly valuable in communities where various specialists and subspecialists are less available. While focusing primarily on outpatient medicine, health maintenance, and disease prevention, family physicians are also skilled at coordinating care among different specialists and subspecialists when needed.

The biggest upside of having a family medicine doctor is the convenience and peace of mind that comes from knowing you can go to one source for all of your family’s healthcare needs. In many case, multiple family appointments can be scheduled for the same day—a huge bonus for busy parents.

Primary Care: What’s it about and who is it for?

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

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).

A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who also has a master’s degree and clinical experience. While 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 their training. Some specialties include family medicine, neonatal (care for newborns), pediatrics, geriatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, acute (emergency or intensive) care, and occupational (workplace) health. NPs may also serve as Certified Nurse Midwives and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists.

Physician assistants are licensed health professionals who must pass a certification exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. While they do not choose a specialty, they 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.

Family Medicine or Primary Care: Which is right for you?

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

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