"Primary care" is a term that refers to the healthcare facilities and professionals that are usually visited first and most frequently by patients. The strict definition of primary care settings varies widely based on geography and insurance terminology. A patient's physician and his office are almost always considered primary care, and certain specialists, such as dermatologists, obstetricians and gynecologists, and allergists are often included in this classification as well. Some even extend the terminology to include pharmacies, dentists, optometrists, nursing homes, hospices and walk-in clinics.
In insurance terminology, the primary care physician is usually the general practitioner most often seen by the patient, and the only true setting is that doctor's office. Even within a doctor's office, however, primary care settings can change somewhat. The physician may be in an independent practice or may operate out of a clinic. In addition, the physician's official designation may be general practice, family medicine or pediatrics.
Many people consider any specialist who does not require an insurance referral to be part of primary care. Under this classification, there are a number of primary care settings. Dermatology is one of the most common examples. These professionals, who focus on the treatment of the skin, might operate out of an office or a clinic. If they operate out of a traditional office, they may perform procedures in an out-patient clinic.
Obstetricians and gynecologists, or physicians who practice both specialties, are also considered part of primary care because many general practitioners do not offer the services offered by these specialists. Such specialists can operate in a variety of primary care settings, including a doctor's office; clinic; or in the case of labor and delivery, a hospital. It is important to note that this is virtually the only case in which a hospital might be considered one of the primary care settings.
Dentists and optometrists also are frequently considered primary care providers because doctors do not offer their services. They most often work out of standard offices. Optometrists may, however, have offices inside of eyewear stores. While the store itself would not be considered one of the primary care settings, the actual doctor's office within it would be.
When the term is expanded even further, the result is a wide range of primary care settings. A pharmacy, for example, may be free standing, located within a grocery or drug store or even virtual. Likewise, nursing homes and hospices may be private or government-run. Additionally, a walk-in clinic can be free standing, adjacent to a hospital or located inside a pharmacy, drug store or grocery store.