There are many benefits to visiting with a health care provider on a regular basis. A yearly visit to the doctor’s office is your opportunity to get important health screenings done, talk about any health concerns you may have and possibly catch a problem before it has the chance to become serious. But with so many different types of medical professionals available to provide care — from family doctors to internists, NPs and PAs to MDs and DOs — it may be hard to determine who does what and who to see.
To better understand the alphabet soup of health care providers, let’s first look at the differences between a primary care, family medicine and internal medicine physician. Although these providers cover a lot of the same ground in caring for patients, not all may be right for you and your family.
- Primary Care Provider (PCP) – This person can be a doctor, nurse practitioner (NP) or physician assistant (PA) who provides preventative care and healthy lifestyle education, addresses common medical issues, manages chronic health conditions and performs health screenings as appropriate.
- Family Medicine Physician – A family physician is trained to provide primary care for every member of your family at all stages of life but may also offer special services such as obstetrics, orthopedics and dermatology. Some family medicine physicians choose to focus their practice on a particular area, such as sports medicine, and are qualified to handle minor emergencies as well as many in-office procedures.
- Internist – A doctor who specializes in the care of older adolescents and adults with either complex or multiple medical conditions is known as an internal medicine physician, or internist.
“For many of your preventative and health care maintenance needs, you may only ever see a PCP,” explains Vivian Jones, M.D., of Texas Health Family Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Plano. “If your needs go beyond their scope, your primary care provider can help connect you with a specialist to properly address your issue or concern.”
No matter your needs or preferences it’s important to establish a home base for medical purposes, adds Justin Ezell, D.O., of Texas Health Family Care in Fort Worth. “Having an office where you are known and where you have a provider you can trust are key. If you have a medical emergency, you’ll save time by knowing where to turn first. In addition, some insurance companies won’t cover visits to specialists without a referral from a PCP, such as a family doctor or internist.”
Explore Your Options
Health care providers of all types learn to diagnose, treat and prevent diseases and injuries. So you can expect to receive quality care and a similar approach to treatment whether you see a provider with the letters MD, DO, NP or PA after their name.
Both MDs and DOs complete the same medical school and residency training requirements, and both can either enter primary care or choose to specialize in their training. Here are some distinctions between the two:
- MD: A doctor of medicine is a person who has attended and graduated from a traditional medical school. An MD focuses on research-based medicine and often relies on medications or surgery to treat and manage different health conditions.
- DO: A doctor of osteopathic medicine is someone who has attended and graduated from a U.S. osteopathic medical school, and is required to learn Osteopathic Principles and Practice in order to manage patients’ concerns using distinct osteopathic techniques such as Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment. Some DOs go on to specialize in OMT, focusing on bones, muscles and nerves and how they affect the body’s overall health.
As for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, both are highly qualified medical professionals trained to provide care and treatment.
“I have many patients who established a relationship with me right up front for their primary care needs and who have stayed with me for years,” says Zohra Nazarali, APRN, FNP-BC, who works as a certified family nurse practitioner at Texas Health Family Care in Fort Worth. “It’s also possible that you might establish care with an NP or PA and find that we’ll collaborate with a doctor to provide a broader, team approach to your overall health care.”
Despite the similarities, there are some differences between the NP and PA:
- Nurse practitioner: This Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) has completed registered-nurse preparation in a primary care focus area such as adult, family, geriatric, pediatric or women’s health, and may have additional education and training to assist a surgeon in the operating room. An NP may or may not collaborate with a physician to provide care.
- Certified physician assistant: A PA-C has completed extensive college coursework in general medicine plus hands-on clinical training in all facets of patient care, including the development of treatment plans, care coordination and assisting with surgeries. Once you have been seen and evaluated by a physician, a PA may serve as your primary contact for ongoing issues or future concerns.
“Think of the physician assistant and nurse practitioner as an extension of your physician,” notes Ashley Banda, PA-C, of Texas Health Adult Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Bedford. “The education we receive as physician assistants, and NPs for that matter, emphasizes patient education, preventative care and chronic illness management, so it’s a similar skill set to that of physicians. This allows us to provide a wide spectrum of care that places the patient at the center and is focused on treating the ‘whole patient.’”
Although a physician always follows your progress in collaboration with a physician assistant, both the PA and NP are qualified to independently manage your day-to-day health care needs ? from sick visits to prescribing medications ? and may be more readily available to see you.
“The bottom line is there’s no right answer when it comes to choosing a health care provider,” Jones admits. “Ultimately, being comfortable and having a good trusting relationship with your provider is what matters most. When you find that person, stick with them and see them regularly.”
To find a health care provider near you, visit TexasHealth.org.