Doctor Decoded: 3 Types of Primary Care Doctors

Should you see an internist, or a family practitioner?

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So you’ve moved to a new city, and it’s time for your annual wellness exam. You need to find a new “regular” doctor—that is, not a specialist—but when you search online, you see all types of fancy names: primary care physician, internal medicine doctor, family practitioner, and so on. Who should you see?

Primary care physician, or PCP, is an umbrella term for a doctor who practices general medicine. PCPs are responsible for providing continuing and comprehensive care for a patient. In addition to providing routine checkups, they are often the first physician a patient sees when a health concern arises.

While specialists like cardiologists or pulmonologists help treat and manage specific diseases, a PCP’s main goals are to promote health and prevent disease. However, a PCP can help recognize and treat a problem, and refer you to the appropriate specialist, if necessary.

In other words, a PCP is the official name for the “regular” doctor you are looking for. But it gets a little more complicated: There are different types of primary care physicians with important distinctions.

Types of Primary Care Physicians

Pediatricians are PCPs specifically for babies, children, and teens. 

Pediatricians provide general and routine care for kids, but they are especially skilled at diagnosing and treating issues that appear in childhood, such as behavioral and developmental disorders—ADHD, autism, type 1 diabetes, measles, and so on. Of course, pediatricians also tend to be more experienced at communicating and interacting with young children.

Internal medicine doctors, or internists, are PCPs specifically for adults. Internists are not to be confused with interns, which refers to physicians in training.

Along with general and routine care, internists are also skilled in adult-specific diseases, like high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes. While an internist doesn’t replace a specialist for these diseases—someone with diabetes should also see an endocrinologist, for example—they become part of the patient’s treatment team and can help support their overall health.

Family practitioners are PCPs that care for all ages, from infant to elderly.

A family practitioner is ideal if you want continuous care from the same doctor throughout your lifespan, or if you want to use the same physician for your entire family (hence the name). As with other PCPs, they can provide routine care to promote your overall health, and refer you to specialists when you need more specialized care.

Moral of the story: You can find great providers, regardless of your age. Now decode these other healthcare providers: