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Primary care. Family medicine. Internal medicine. What does it all mean? And which one is right for you?

There are over 100 different specializations for doctors. While primary care accounts for only a fraction of these specialties, research shows there are major benefits to having a primary care doctor. I’ll help you understand the differences between the five most common types.

First things first: What is a primary care doctor?

A primary care doctor is the person you can rely on to help you manage your health. They can help you with preventive care, like your routine physicals, screenings and immunizations, and also diagnose and manage many common chronic conditions like hypertension or type 2 diabetes. They’re also there when an illness or injury interrupts your day.

Common services include:

  • Regular physical exams
  • Prescribing medications
  • Treating minor illnesses and injuries
  • Managing chronic conditions
  • Screenings for common health problems

Primary care doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners are unique because they’re trained experts in treating a broad range of health conditions. Many also have specialized expertise in a certain area, like diabetes or geriatrics. Should you need specialized care, your primary care doctor can expertly guide your next steps, connecting you to the right specialist.

What kind of primary care doctor do I need?

There are five main types of primary care doctors. Each has a different background and focus, but all can provide you with the regular preventive health care you need, and can help with the management of some chronic conditions. Here’s a quick breakdown of the five types of primary care doctors, and why you might consider each type for your own care.

Family medicine doctors

The unique benefit of family medicine 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 medicine doctor 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 medicine 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).

Pediatricians

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.

Pediatricians are experts at understanding developmental milestones and keeping children on track toward a healthy future.

Why choose a pediatrician for primary care?

While their area of focus overlaps with family medicine doctors, who also see children, pediatricians specialize in children’s health care. They’re familiar with a wide range of childhood medical conditions and are 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.

Internal medicine doctors

Internal medicine doctors (also called internists) care for adults from early adulthood through old age. Because they only treat adult patients, internists are well versed in issues that primarily affect adults, like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Why choose an internal medicine doctor for primary care?

Internal medicine doctors are trained to treat both simple and complex conditions. They’re experts at balancing your regular preventive care needs with your specialized care needs.

Internal medicine-pediatrics doctors

Also called med-peds doctors, internal medicine-pediatrics doctors are two types of physicians in one. Because they’re board-certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics, they can care for both kids and adults.

Why choose an internal medicine-pediatrics doctor for primary care?

Many patients choose a med-peds doctor because they appreciate knowing their physician has a dual board certification as both a pediatrician and an internist.

OB-GYNs

OB-GYN (obstetrics and gynecology) doctors are experts in women’s health. They provide routine women’s health services and screenings, and can practice within a primary care clinic or a specialty office.

OB-GYNs assist with family planning and can help 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. In addition to women’s health care, your OB-GYN can also provide preventive care, like annual checkups, and some screenings, like mammograms and Pap tests.

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. While your OB-GYN can 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.

No matter what type of doctor you see, seeing them regularly is key

Whether your primary care physician is a family medicine doctor, pediatrician, internist, med-ped or OB-GYN, seeing a doctor regularly makes it easier to stay on top of your health. You’ll get the physicals, screenings and immunizations you need, when you need them.

Primary care doctors can also catch developing conditions when they’re the most treatable, making it more likely that treatment will be less intensive and probably cost less, too.

Preventive care appointments and screenings are often free

Preventive care visits are covered 100% by most health insurance plans – even high-deductible ones.

If you have questions 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 to make sure. If you have HealthPartners insurance, you can call 800-883-2177.

Find a primary doctor near you

Whether you live in the Twin Cities, central Minnesota or western Wisconsin, it’s easy to find a primary care doctor near you.

Browse our primary care doctors to find one who’s right for you.

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