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Understanding Primary Care Clinicians

Primary care practitioners or clinicians, physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses are providers you may encounter during your doctor’s visit. You may be wondering what the difference is between them.

What is primary care?

Primary care is your entry-point for the healthcare that you need. This includes:

  • Preventive care :
    • Immunizations
    • Cancer screening
    • Evaluating for risks of developing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke
  • Evaluating and treating new medical problems
  • Managing many chronic medical conditions
  • Determining when care with specialists is needed
  • Providing emotional, psychological, and social support in order to maintain or improve activities of daily living

PCPs (primary care practitioners or clinicians) may be physicians, APRNs, or PAs.

What types of physicians are PCPs?

Internal medicine physicians, also known as internists are “doctors for adults.” They have additional training to help care for adult patients with complex medical illness in addition to the standard work of preventive care and seeing you when you are sick. They have completed three years of residency training in this specialty after medical school.

Family practice physicians, also known as “family medicine doctors” take pride in treating patients of different ages and often care for entire families in addition to the standard work of preventive care and seeing you when you are sick. They have completed three years of residency training in this specialty.

All physicians, regardless of specialty, graduated after four years of medical school (which grant either an M.D. degree or a D.O. degree), trained in a residency program, and passed medical board exams.

What is a physician assistant?

Physician assistants (PAs) have graduated from a two-year accredited PA educational program and have been trained to treat common medical problems and injuries. Increasingly, PAs are also completing one year of extra training in “residency programs.” Their clinical experiences in medical care make them well trained to serve many of the roles necessary in primary care. Many PAs also work in hospitals and specialty practices.

What is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)?

APRNs have completed either Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in nursing and have then completed a two-year educational program with more clinical training in diagnosing and managing medical problems as well as in delivering preventive care to become an APRN. Increasingly, APRNs are also completing one year of extra training in “residency programs.” Their clinical experiences in medical care make them well trained to serve many of the roles necessary in primary care. Many APRNs also work in hospitals and in specialty practices.

Does it matter who I see?

Any of the clinicians above will have the training and expertise necessary to be your PCP and are typically part of larger collaborative primary care teams to ensure all your needs can be met, whether related to general preventive care or the “sick” visits all patient inevitably need at some point. The most important decision is whether you feel comfortable with your clinician.

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