What is a Primary Care Physician and What Do They Do?
Like most aspiring physicians, you most likely are looking to pursue medicine as a career because you want to make a difference by helping people and positively impacting lives through healthcare.
But with more than 100 specialties that you can pursue after graduating from medical school — family medicine, radiology, neurosurgery, oncology, orthopedics, the list goes on — which one is right for you?
If you are looking to focus on the whole patient and form long-term relationships with patients and their families, primary care could be good medicine for you. Before you embark on your medical school journey, you may ask: What is a primary care physician? What does a primary care doctor do?
To help you understand the scope and the differences among the most common types of primary care, we turned to Julie Taylor, MD, MSc, Chief Academic Officer and Senior Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs for the AUC School of Medicine. A practicing family physician in Rhode Island, Dr. Taylor shares her experiences from the front lines to offer a closer look at life and work in primary care.
“One of the greatest rewards for primary care physicians is of course helping people and doing good in the world,” says Dr. Taylor. “But it’s also that you become part of patients’ lives and they become part of yours. You may be taking care of the health of the mother and then it is the health of the child. It is an extraordinary experience. I currently have one four-generation family in my practice. I am the great-grandmother’s doctor and her great-grandkids’ doctor, with two generations of patients in between.”
WHAT IS A PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN?
Family medicine is one of the primary care specialties.
“Family physicians are doctors who treat patients of all ages, from birth through death,” says Dr. Taylor. “It’s very holistic in that you can form a close relationship with a patient and generations of their family, treating them at any stage of their life. A primary care physician usually serves as the patient's first point of entry into the healthcare system — and the doctor they turn to first for their needed healthcare services.”
So what does a primary care doctor do? Think of them as a personal health detective and advocate — one who evaluates a patient’s symptoms to diagnose and manage their health, she says. In addition to preventive care, like annual checkups, blood tests and immunizations, primary care doctors help diagnose and manage chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, and acute conditions like heart disease. A primary care doctor is the go-to person when health-related issues arise.
DEMAND FOR PRIMARY CARE DOCTORS
The good news: Primary care physicians are in high demand, and patients who regularly see their primary care physician have better health. Consider this:
- The United States could see an estimated shortage of between 54,100 and 139,000 physicians, including shortfalls in both primary and specialty care, by 2033, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). That includes a shortage of between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care physicians.
- Studies have shown that states with a higher ratio of primary care physicians to people have better health and lower rates of mortality. Patients who regularly see a primary care physician also have lower health costs than those without one. Every age group benefits from primary care doctors, from the youngest children to the most senior seniors.
WHAT DOES A PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN DO?
Primary care physicians deliver care in a variety of clinical settings, from outpatient offices, to inpatient in hospitals, long-term care facilities, home care and community settings, says Dr. Taylor. They also provide healthy lifestyle promotion, disease prevention, health maintenance, counseling, patient education and weight management, among many other healthcare services.
Primary care doctors also know that social, economic and interpersonal factors all have a direct bearing on health and well-being. Dr. Taylor can attest to this. She was the principal investigator for a six-year Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) grant to teach medical students about caring for underserved patients and is past president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, a worldwide organization of physicians dedicated to the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding and human lactation.
TYPES OF PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIANS
The question, “What is a primary care physician?” isn’t always clear cut since doctors in different specialties may practice primary care, says Dr. Taylor. From family medicine and internal medicine doctors to obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYNs) and pediatricians, primary care physicians oversee adolescent health, geriatric health, infant and child, maternity, men’s, and women’s care and more, says Dr. Taylor. The top primary care specialties include:
- Family medicine: These physicians treat all ages from newborns to the elderly, as well as all kinds of ailments from viruses to sports injuries.
- Internal medicine: These physicians treat adults and specialize in the prevention, diagnosis and care of disease and chronic conditions.
- Pediatrics: Pediatricians are doctors who care for children’s health from birth, providing wellness care and treating childhood diseases and health problems.
- Obstetrics/gynecology (OB/GYN): Gynecologists specialize in women’s health and obstetricians care for women during pregnancy and deliver babies.
Being a primary care physician is a comprehensive experience requiring you to be a very hard worker and very structured, but to “be creative, articulate, have a love for humanity and a dedication to helping your patients lead full, healthy lives,” says Dr. Taylor.
Learn more about medical specialties, including pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery, in our Career Exploration webinar series.