Primary care. Family medicine. Internal medicine. Pediatrics. Obstetrics and gynecology. What’s the difference? And which type of primary care doctor is right for you?
Choosing the right primary care doctor is an important step in promoting your overall health and well-being. But with so many different options, it can be hard to know where to start.
To help you find the right doctor and understand the differences between primary care specialties, we’ve put together this helpful guide on the different types of doctors you can choose from.
What is a primary care doctor?
A primary care doctor is the person you can rely on to help manage a wide variety of health care needs – both routine and expected.
These doctors can help you with preventive care, like your routine physicals, screenings and immunizations. They can also diagnose, treat and help manage many common chronic conditions like hypertension or type 2 diabetes. And, if an illness or injury interrupts your day? They can help with that too.
Common services include:
- Regular physical exams
- Prescribing medications such as antibiotics to treat illnesses or birth control
- Treating minor illnesses and injuries like the seasonal flu or sinus infections, skin conditions and sleep issues
- Managing chronic conditions
- Screenings for common health problems
Why is it important to have a primary care doctor?
There are many reasons why you need a primary care doctor. You can talk to your primary care doctor about any health topic – they’re your point person for health and well-being.
Routine checkups with the same doctor can help identify health issues earlier, keeping you healthier, happier and saving you money on medical expenses. And if you need more specialized care for a health condition, a primary care doctor can expertly guide your next steps and connect you with the right specialist.
What kind of primary care doctor do you need?
There are five main types of primary care doctors:
- Internal medicine doctors
- Family medicine doctors
- OB-GYNs (obstetrics and gynecology)
- Internal medicine-pediatric doctors (med-peds)
All of these doctors are expertly trained to treat a broad range of health conditions. But every type of primary care doctor has a different background and focus. Some treat patients of all ages, others specialize in the care of women, seniors or children. So, the right primary care doctor depends on your personal (or your family’s) health care needs.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the five types of doctors for primary care, and why you might consider each type for your own care.
Internal medicine doctors
What is an internal medicine doctor, you ask? Internal medicine doctors are different from other primary care doctors because they only care for adults. These doctors, also called internists, are trained to treat both simple and complex conditions from early adulthood through old age.
Why choose an internal medicine doctor for primary care?
Internal medicine doctors are experts at balancing an adult’s regular preventive care needs with specialized care needs. They are well versed in conditions that can pop up in adulthood, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Pediatricians specialize in caring for children, from birth through early adulthood. They’re trained to treat minor illnesses and injuries, along with more complex conditions.
Their area of focus overlaps with family medicine doctors – who also see children from babies to young adults. But the major difference between pediatricians and family medicine doctors is that pediatricians are solely focused on children’s health care.
Why choose a pediatrician for primary care?
Pediatricians are familiar with a wide range of childhood medical conditions, and they’re experts at understanding developmental milestones and keeping children on track toward a healthy future.
Pediatricians are also experienced in talking with children and helping them feel comfortable – a big plus if your child is shy or scared of going to the doctor. So, if you’re looking for a doctor who’s completely focused on kids’ health, a pediatrician can be the perfect fit.
Family medicine doctors
The unique benefit of family doctors is that they care for your whole family. They see babies, children, parents and grandparents. No matter who in your family is sick, you have one person to call who knows your family history and can provide highly personalized care.
Why choose a family medicine doctor for primary care?
Having a family physician gives you the convenience and peace of mind of knowing that you can go to one trusted source for all of your family’s health care needs. Because they treat a variety of patients, family doctors have a wide range of experience. They know how to communicate with patients of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly.
A family medicine doctor can be a convenient option for busy parents who want to take care of multiple family appointments on the same day.
Internal medicine-pediatrics doctors
Internal medicine-pediatrics doctors are two types of doctors in one. They’re board certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics. These doctors care for kids and adults, and can help prevent, treat and diagnose diseases. They’re also called med-peds doctors (pronounced: MED-peeds).
Why choose an internal medicine-pediatrics doctor for primary care?
Many patients consider a med-peds doctor because they appreciate knowing their physician has a dual board certification as both a pediatrician and an internist. Given their broad expertise, med-peds may be the primary care doctor for your entire family, even if someone in your crew has medical conditions that require specialized care.
OB-GYN doctors are experts in women's health, specifically female reproductive health. They provide routine women’s health services and screenings like Pap tests, pelvic exams and STI testing. They can practice within a primary care clinic or a specialty office.
OB-GYNs assist with everything from family planning to helping you choose from available birth control options. They also care for you during milestones like pregnancy and menopause.
Why choose an OB-GYN doctor for primary care?
Many women consider their OB-GYN a close and trusted medical advisor. And sometimes women might choose an OB-GYN as their only primary care provider if they’re in good health.
But because OB-GYNs specialize in the female reproductive system, it’s a good idea to see both an OB-GYN and a primary care doctor like an internal medicine doctor, family medicine doctor or med-ped.
While your OB-GYN can care for all your women’s health needs, plus provide some general preventive care like your annual flu shot, your primary care doctor can help you when you’re sick or have questions about your overall health.
How often do you need to see your primary care doctor?
No matter who you choose as a primary care physician, seeing a doctor regularly makes it easier to stay on top of your health. It’s important to keep up with your routine exams, screenings and immunizations. Not only will you stay healthier, but preventive care is usually covered 100% by most health insurance plans – even high-deductible ones.
If you’re healthy, you may only see your primary care doctor once a year, but if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, you may need more frequent visits. And, if you have an illness or injury, your primary care doctor can help get you on the road to recovery.
For answers about what’s covered and what isn’t, including whether the doctor you’d like to see is in your network, contact your insurance provider. If you have HealthPartners insurance, you can call 800-883-2177.
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