Picking a new primary care provider is no easy task. Not only are there usually multiple primary care providers in the same city, hospital, or practice, but there are also several different types of primary care providers. Each type of provider specializes in different things, has different pros and cons, and can be a completely different experience. But never fear; here's a guide to all the different primary care providers so you can make the best choice for your health journey.
Types of Primary Care Providers:
- Family Doctor
- Doctor of Internal Medicine
- Obstetrics and Gynecology Doctor
- Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
- Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine
- Nurse Practitioner
- Physician Assistant
Primary Care Physicians:
Primary care physicians are providers who possess a doctorate (an advanced degree). They generally have a deeper medical knowledge than primary care providers without a doctorate. There are three types of doctorates these doctors can get that allow them to practice as a primary care physician:
- A medical doctorate degree (MD)
- A doctor of osteopathic medicine degree (DO)
- A doctor of naturopathic medicine degree (ND)
Once a physician has graduated from medical school, they are eligible for a medical license that requires passing a licensing exam. This license legally allows them to diagnose and treat patients. However, doctors who have completed residency are also eligible for board certification, a certification demonstrating expertise in a medical specialty. Doctors who are board certified generally have a deeper knowledge of medicine.
A family doctor holds an MD, has completed a 3-year residency program, and is eligible for board certification. A family doctor is more focused on outpatient medicine (care that isn't as life-threatening and more preventative), like pediatrics and OB/GYN. Because they spend less time focusing on specialty medicine, they are more familiar with a broader age range of patients. This offers several benefits. They are a great option for families who want to go to the same doctor and for people who want their children to keep the same doctor throughout their lives. In addition, because a family doctor can potentially stay with you from birth, they will have a deeper understanding of your personal and family history than a different doctor might. On the other hand, because they are not as heavily trained in specialty medicine, they will likely rely on referrals for more complicated issues. Therefore, there may be better options than this type of doctor for a complicated patient.
Doctor of Internal Medicine
A doctor of internal medicine (also known as an internist) is someone with the same amount of experience as a family doctor (medical school, residency, and board certification) but who has done an internal medicine residency and has focused more on inpatient care (care for more serious, severe conditions). Therefore, these doctors only treat adults and have a more in-depth knowledge of the specialties. For someone with a complicated medical history, an internist is probably one of the best options for you. Because they know more about specialties, they can directly help with more complicated issues than other PCPs and won't need to refer you to other specialists as often.
Obstetrics and Gynecology Doctor
An obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) doctor specializes in women's health, including reproductive health, childbirth, and more. An OB/GYN has similar credentials to both internists and family doctors. However, their emphasis is entirely placed on women and will be able to treat you from puberty to menopause. This type of PCP is a good option for young women without a super complicated medical history. OB/GYNs may specialize in complex family planning, gynecologic oncology, infertility, and more.
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
A doctor of osteopathic medicine (or DO) is similar to the other doctors mentioned. However, instead of attending a four-year medical school, they graduate from a four-year osteopathic medical school. Like medical doctors, they go through residency and are eligible to be board certified. A DO has a more holistic approach to medicine and heavily emphasizes nerves, bones, and muscles. This means they can also participate in chiropractic medicine.
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine
A naturopathic doctor also does not go to a typical medical school but instead attends a four-year naturopathic medical school. They may undergo additional training but are not eligible for board certification. A naturopathic doctor centers their practice on the belief that the body can heal itself and that natural remedies are the best treatments, such as herbal therapies, organic foods, and a healthy lifestyle. If you are considering a naturopathic doctor, it's very important to ensure they are certified by an accredited university and willing to refer you to a medical doctor if a condition worsens. They are probably not the best option if you have complicated medical conditions.
Other Primary Care Providers:
These primary care providers do not possess a doctorate and usually work under doctors at a practice. However, these types of providers may have their own practice.
A nurse practitioner (or NP) holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, received a Registered Nursing License, and has completed a 3-year graduate program. An NP has more medical knowledge and basic training than a physician assistant. They typically work under a family or internal medicine practice. However, they don't need to be attached to a physician. If you are a healthy patient, a nurse practitioner will be a fine PCP, and they may even be okay if you are a more complicated patient (if they work closely with doctors).
A physician assistant (PA) has earned a bachelor's degree and participated in a two-year PA program. They don't have as expansive knowledge as physicians or nurse practitioners, but PAs who work closely with a physician should be fine for normally healthy patients. However, because they don't have as extensive training as the other PCP options, it's probably best to avoid using a PA if you are a patient with complicated medical history.
Your PCP is much like a second in command in battle. They are the first ones you come to when you need care, they are the ones to refer you to other specialists, and they should be your fiercest advocate. Choosing a PCP takes time and trial and error, but if you take the right steps, you can find one that is truly amazing.