A primary care physician (PCP) is a doctor who serves as the initial contact point for patients. The PCP oversees the patient's health care strategy, makes referrals to specialists when needed and reviews the results of the patient's visits to other health care providers. Health insurance companies typically recognize general pediatrics, internal medicine and family practice as primary care specialties. Some health care providers also allow gynecologists to function as a woman's primary care physician.
When a baby is born, a pediatrician normally becomes the primary care physician for the infant. Pediatricians plan the health care strategy for the child until early adulthood, but parents often choose to switch to a family practitioner as the child ages. Much of a pediatrician's practice is devoted to routine immunizations, monitoring growth and development, childhood illnesses and minor injuries. Among the three universally accepted primary care specialties, pediatricians account for the smallest percentage of doctors.
Among the primary care specialties, internists — doctors who are practicing internal medicine — have the narrowest scope of treatment. Internists concentrate on the body's internal organs, such as the liver, kidneys, digestive system and stomach. Treatment involves lifestyle changes or medications, and if surgery is needed, internists refer patients to a surgeon. As a primary care physician, the internist might also refer patients to specialists.
Family practice is sometimes referred to as general practice, and it stands out among the primary care specialties as the only one that can realistically provide health care services to most, if not all, members of a family. As the name implies, a doctor in general practice will diagnose and treat a wide variety of illnesses and injuries. When needed, a family practitioner makes referrals to specialists but often remains the primary coordinator for all of the patient's needs.
Gynecologists are doctors who focus on women's health. They might function much like a family practitioner by diagnosing and treating a patient's general health, but their main concern is with illnesses and injuries that concern the female reproductive system. Some gynecologists are also obstetricians, providing testing and counseling before a patient's pregnancy and then monitoring her progress until she has recovered from giving birth. Although gynecology is not universally recognized as one of the primary care specialties, the number of insurance plans that permit women to name their gynecologists as their primary care physicians has grown.