Patient visiting a primary care doctor.

Types of Doctors: What are Primary Care Physicians and Providers?

A doctor-patient relationship is just that — a relationship that is based on trust and clear understanding. Getting to know the same doctor through checkups, screenings, and well visits allows the doctor to know and understand your personal history and symptoms. Plus, that type of familiarity makes it easier to diagnose problems, which ultimately keeps you healthier AND happier.

Your primary care physician is the doctor you turn to for basically everything, from routine checkups to the diagnosis of persistent, nagging illnesses. But what exactly is a primary care doctor and how are primary care providers different from other specialists?

There are a number of differences between the types of doctors and providers involved in primary healthcare. Let’s take a deeper look!

What is Primary Care?

Primary care is an area of medical specialty focusing on the physical, mental and social aspects of health. A primary care physician can be a family practitioner, gynecologist, internal medicine physician, geriatrician, or pediatrician. It’s important to keep in mind that primary care is more of a role than a specialty – doctors often specialize or have advanced training in certain fields (like pediatrics, for example) in order to provide primary care to that population.

Primary care doctors are the first point of contact for most patients; they diagnose and treat common medical conditions like colds, flu, sore throats, and ear infections. Other responsibilities include counseling patients about nutrition and exercise, managing chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, prescribing medication, and ordering tests like X-rays, MRIs, or blood work.

What Are the Different Types of Doctors and Providers in Primary Care?

Primary care doctors can be a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.), with the main difference being the medical school attended and the thought process used when diagnosing and treating patients. Even though every type of primary care doctor serves on the frontline of their patients’ health, they can be divided into several subspecialties.

Family Practice Doctors

Family practice doctors, also known as family medicine doctors or family physicians, specialize in comprehensive healthcare services for people of all ages. Family practice doctors offer preventive care, including routine checkups, health-risk assessments, vaccinations, and interventional measures like screening tests.

They can also offer personalized counseling on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and can provide guidance on mental health support services, as well.

General Internal Medicine Doctors

Internal medicine physicians, or internists, are specialists who provide care for adult patients. From diagnosis to treatment, internists work to not only provide general health oversight but also manage complex illness, when needed. The main difference between internists and family practitioners is that an internist only sees adult patients.


Pediatrics is a medical field focused on the treatment of children from birth until age twenty-one. Pediatricians specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of conditions in children of all ages, helping to prevent or manage developmental issues.

Obstetrician/Gynecologists (OB/GYNs)

OB/GYNs focus on medical care related to pregnancy or female reproductive health. This means a range of duties, including prenatal care, delivery, postpartum care, gynecological exams and treatment of disorders of the female reproductive system. Doctors can specialize in obstetrics (which is focused on pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care), gynecology (which specializes in female-related diseases and organs), or both.


Geriatric doctors specialize in the care and wellness of elderly patients. Older adults frequently suffer from chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease, and most have more than one chronic condition.

Consequently, an elderly patient’s health needs can be much different from younger patients. They also may have compromised immune systems that leave them more open to infectious disease, and geriatricians are specially trained to deal with the unique needs of this population.

In addition to primary care’s various types of doctors, there are some other primary care providers that patients can see on a regular basis, too. Similar to primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants can deliver primary care services: conduct annual checkups, prescribe medication, make diagnoses, and order testing.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners provide health care services similar to those of physicians. NPs are nursing professionals who have received additional patient-centric training in a specialty field like pediatrics or family health. They work closely with doctors and can prescribe medications, treat injuries, and interpret diagnostic tests.

Physician Assistant (PA)

A physician assistant, or PA, often gets confused with a nurse practitioner, as they perform similar patient care roles. A PA’s education, however, uses a disease-oriented model like that of a medical student. Once a PA graduates, they choose a specialty area. Similar to an NP, PAs can prescribe medications, treat injuries, and interpret diagnostic tests, based on their specialty of focus.

Referral to a Medical Specialist

A primary care doctor is also responsible for arranging specialist referrals if a particular condition needs additional support. Specialists are different types of doctors whose areas of medicine concentrate on health problems or specific systems of the human body.


Neurology specializes in treatment/disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system, such as Parkinson’s Disease or multiple sclerosis.


Cardiology is consulted for problems related to the heart and blood vessels (like managing heart disease).


Gastroenterology focuses on the treatment of diseases concerning the digestive system, including the stomach, pancreas, and large and small intestine.


Dermatology is concentrated on diseases of the skin (like skin cancer).


Endocrinology is concerned with diseases of the endocrine system, such as the thyroid and thymus.


Oncology includes the diagnosis and treatment of cancers and tumors.


Also known as allergists, doctors specializing in immunology focus on the treatment of asthma, allergies, and immune system disorders.


These doctors are trained to treat inflammatory or rheumatic diseases.


Specialists in ophthalmology deal with eye care, including treatment of disease, surgery, and prescription of glasses and contact lenses.

There are also several types of specialists that work at medical facilities in conjunction with other medical doctors to provide services and support; for example, radiologists use non-invasive technology (radiology) to look at the body’s internal systems, and anesthesiologists are trained in the sedation of patients prior to general surgery (or any medical procedure where being awake would cause unnecessary distress).

Finding the Type of Doctor You Need

Selecting a primary care physician is often based on recommendation from family members or friends, but you also need to check credentials before making an appointment. In addition to board certification, be sure that the doctor participates in your insurance plan or is willing to file claims for you.

It’s important to find a doctor who treats you as an individual and listens to your needs. Your relationship with your primary care provider is just that — a relationship! Good communication is essential for effective healthcare management.

So, if you’ve been searching for the type of doctor who will make your care a top priority, contact the primary care team at Meridian HealthCare. We’re ready to get you on your path to better health!