What is Primary Care

What is Primary Care?

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The Primary Care Provider Series: Post 1 of 3

July and August are perfect months to get your well-visits scheduled. You can get that sports physical before the school year begins, and check to make sure your preventive health is up-to-date. In this series of three posts, I will go through the process of finding the provider that is right for you. Let’s get started!

Finding a primary care provider that is right for you is key to preventive health. Primary care providers act as the doorway to medical care. They help you with your general health, recommend preventive strategies, and if you need it, they can send you to healthcare specialists.

However, not all providers are the same. Different primary care providers are trained differently, have different medical philosophies, and take different approaches to your care. Therefore, it is important to find a provider that fits your health needs and your own health philosophy.

So, what is primary care in the first place?

According to the Institute of Medicine, primary care is…

“the provision of integrated, accessible health care services by clinicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community.” 1

What types of primary care providers are out there?

Here’s a quick list of potential providers 2:
• Family practice physicians
• Internal medicine physicians
• Obstetrician gynecologists (OB/GYN)
• Pediatricians
• Nurse practitioners 3
• Physician assistants 4

While this list might look simple, each provider has a different set of complex training, approach, and philosophy behind each type of provider.

Provider Training: The Alphabet explained

When you decide on a provider, check out their qualifications. It is usually indicated by initials after their last name. Let’s take a look at the differences between these qualifications.

DO: Doctor of Osteopathy
This provider has attended a four-year, accredited osteopathic medical school. Similar to the medical doctor, osteopathic physicians attend a residency program after medical school, where they can specialize in different medical topics. Compared with MD medical schools, osteopathic medical schools emphasize preventive care, a “whole person approach,” and distinct training on the integrated musculoskeletal system.

MD: Medical Doctor
In the United States, this individual has attended a four-year, accredited medical school. After attending this medical school, medical doctors move on to a residency program, where they specialize in different medical topics, including pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, or family medicine. Medical doctors are licensed to practice by the state.

MPH: Master of Public Health
Public health “promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” In other words, providers with a Masters of Public Health have had met graduate-level coursework on prevention, healthy lifestyles, and the social context of health. Public health schools and programs are accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health.

ND/NMDN: Naturopathic Doctors/Naturopathic Medical Doctors
In the 17 states that have licensing rules or regulations for naturopathic doctors, providers with an ND graduate from a four-year accredited naturopathic medical school. In addition, they must pass an exam through the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examination Board. According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, naturopathic doctors use nature and science to heal, with an approach that is comprehensive, proactive, and holistic.

NP: Nurse Practitioner
In addition to their qualifications as a registered nurse, nurse practitioners have a Masters or Doctoral degree, and are nationally certified. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, these providers emphasize health promotion, education, and prevention practice. “NPs guide patients in making smarter health and lifestyle choices, which in turn can lower patients’ out-of-pocket costs.”

PA: physician assistants
Physician assistants attend 3 academic years of training, along with 2000 hours of clinical practice. Physician assistants attend accredited schools, and must pass a certification exam. According to the American Association of Physician Assistants PA can gather your medical history, manage your physical exam, advise you on preventive care, write prescriptions, and handle treatments.

Whew! That’s a lot of letters! I hope this post helped clarify the basics of primary care. Next week, we’ll talk primary care philosophy.

With so many options available, what does primary care mean to you?

© 2017 Caitlin W Howe, LLC
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  1. http://iom.edu/Reports/1996/Primary-Care-Americas-Health-in-a-New-Era.aspx
  2. It will be important to check with your insurance to determine coverage before you make a final decision.
  3. Nurse practitioners are permitted to independently provide primary care services in some states, but not all.
  4. Physician assistants are permitted to independently provide primary care services in some states, but not all.