What is a primary care physician (PCP)?

This is your main doctor that provides comprehensive care.

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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Key takeaways

  • A primary care physician is your main doctor who provides the broadest medical care, ranging from treatment for chronic conditions and general health and well-being

  • Internists, family doctors, pediatricians, and geriatricians, qualify to be your PCP

  • Some health plans, like an HMO, require seeing primary care doctors before seeing a specialist

A primary care physician is a doctor, sometimes called a family physician or general practitioner, who is typically your first point of contact for most health issues. The primary care physician, or PCP, can provide preventive care and treatment for minor and chronic illnesses. Depending on the type of health plan you have, there may be little or no cost to see your primary care physician. You might also need their referral before you can see a specialist.

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What is a primary care physician? (PCP)

A primary care physician is a doctor who provides you with comprehensive care. When you’re feeling ill or need a checkup, this is where you’ll turn to first, barring a visit to the emergency room. Certain types of health insurance (like an HMO plan) even require you to designate a PCP and seek them out for a referral any time before seeing specialists for care.

Primary care physicians have broad and general duties that focus on preventive care (annual physicals and health screenings), the diagnosis of medical conditions, and management of acute and chronic illnesses. They are equipped to give you vaccinations, and run basic medical tests, like a blood test or an X-ray, but anything more complicated will require a visit to a specialist.

Cost of doctor’s visit

Most health plans cover the cost of a visit to your primary care physician. This might even include the basic blood test and vaccinations mentioned earlier. Patients might only be responsible for a small copayment for their visit.

Types of primary care physicians

All primary care doctors must complete medical school and training. PCPs also choose their own primary care specialties. Some of the most common specialties include internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, and emergency medicine. That means that a few different types of doctors — sometimes with varying titles — are qualified to be your primary care physician.

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Here are some examples of primary care physicians:

  • Internal medicine doctor (MD): Also known as a general internist, this type of doctor typically only treats adults.

  • Osteopathic medicine doctor (DO): An osteopathic doctor is very similar to an internist, except with a more holistic approach, incorporating some chiropractic skills. In the U.S., this degree requires the same amount of schooling, but a different certification test.

  • Family medicine doctor: Also called a family physician, this doctor sees patients that are infants, adolescents, adults, and the elderly.

  • Pediatrician: Patients under 21 years old can see a pediatrician, who specializes in caring for young individuals, including newborns and infants.

  • Geriatrician: This type of doctor provides specialized care for the elderly (people over age 65). Older people may face different health issues or have different health concerns, like medication management, or dementia. A doctor specializing in geriatric medicine can be helpful.

Certain health plans might allow the patient to designate an obstetrician-gynecologist, who specializes in women's health, as her primary care doctor.

Who is not a primary care physician

At the physician’s office, a patient might receive care from someone other than the primary care doctor, like physician assistants (PA) or nurse practitioners (NP). These medical professionals have also undergone their own certification training to treat patients, but are not the same as medical doctors.

Internal medicine doctors might further specialize in different areas, like the digestive system or the brain. These doctors, called specialist physicians do not generally serve as primary care providers. Dermatologists and cardiologists are examples of specialists.

How to choose a primary care physician

The first and most important part of choosing a primary care physician is to understand what type of health plan you have. Most health plans provide a list of in-network doctors that you can see at reduced cost. Some health insurance, like PPO plans, will provide out-of-network cover, while other plans, like HMO plans, might have a more restricted network. Additionally, an HMO plan might require you to choose a primary care provider from the onset, who you’ll have to see for all referrals. No matter what type of health plan you have, it’s best to understand what doctors are in network and how your plan will cover these medical expenses.

You can read more about PPO health insurance and HMO health insurance here.

Whether or not your doctor is affiliated with a hospital could also be an important factor. You would have easier and convenient access to other doctors and specialists, who might also be in your network.

Other considerations when choosing a primary care doctor might be logistical, like the convenience of the location. Finally, you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable with the doctor. While this would require an office visit, it might be an important step in ensuring that you get along with the doctor and feel comfortable speaking with them.

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