What Is a Primary Care Physician?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 08, 2023
4 min read

Staying healthy is more than just going to the doctor when you’re sick. It’s about having a healthcare team that not only addresses your health concerns and illnesses but also takes a proactive approach to help you stay healthy. 

A primary care physician plays an important part in helping you stay healthy. They are often the first contact you or your family members have with the healthcare system and are instrumental in helping you live a healthier life. They provide care for preventing, treating, and curing common illnesses as well as promoting better health.

Research shows that having access to primary care directly favorably impacts health and wellness outcomes.

A primary care physician practices general healthcare, addressing a wide variety of health concerns for patients. They are typically the first person you talk to if you have a health concern. You might turn to them for:

  • Preventive care (stopping illness before it happens)
  • Treatment of common illnesses
  • Early detection of illnesses or conditions (such as cancer)
  • Management of chronic (long-lasting) conditions
  • A referral to a medical specialist

Many people stay with their primary care doctors for years. Over time, a bond of trust develops and a relationship forms. It is not uncommon for an entire family to go to the same doctor for generations. This allows the doctor to know them not just as a patient file, but as individuals.

It’s this familiarity that provides added insight, allowing the doctor to deliver more personal care.

The educational path for a primary care physician begins with earning an undergraduate degree in pre-med or the sciences from an accredited (approved) school. From there, they begin specific medical training, which involves:

  • Graduating from an accredited medical school with a degree in medicine or osteopathic medicine
  • Passing board exams for either:
    • Steps 1 and 2 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), or
    • Levels 1 and 2 of the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMPLEX-USA)
  • Completing clinical instruction or core clerkships
  • Finishing a residency program with required rotations in pediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics, general surgery, and inpatient hospital care.

The physician’s training is complete when they have met all requirements, and are residents of the state in which they will practice. At that time, they may take the exam by either the American Board of Family Medicine or American Osteopathic Board of Family Physicians to get their certification.

As they near the end of their residency, they will apply for a license in their state which will allow them to practice as a board-certified family doctor. This involves passing level 3 of the COMLEX-USA or step 3 of the USMLE.

A primary care physician is a health manager. They are in clinics, long-term care facilities, private practices, outpatient hospital settings, inpatient hospital settings, and group practices.

Your primary care doctor is who you can turn to if you have the flu, need vaccinations, want to quit smoking, need to manage your diabetes, or want to lose weight. They are trained to handle all aspects of healthcare but may send you to a specialist if your condition calls for more focused care.

They help you manage your health by providing routine physicals, immunizations, preventive care, and wellness screenings. They also diagnose common illnesses and chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension (high blood pressure), which they help you manage.

Your primary care physician can treat many conditions including depression and anxiety.

Unlike most other doctors, you don’t see your primary care physician only when you are sick. You may also see them:

  • If you have questions about your health, want to take steps to get healthier, get your annual exam, get a health screening, or get immunizations.
  • If you are feeling under the weather. Your primary care doctor can examine you, order blood tests and other tests, make a diagnosis, and prescribe medications.
  • If you have a chronic condition like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Your primary care doctor can help you find specialists, and they will continue being an important member of your health team throughout treatment.
  • If you are in an accident or sustain an injury. Your primary care doctor is often your first stop, even if it is just a phone call to get advice on what to do.

Your primary care physician can help you reach your best health potential.

The first time you meet with your primary care physician the focus will be on providing information that will give them a better understanding of you, your medical history, and your healthcare needs. They will review your medical records and medications, discuss your personal medical history as well as your family members’, and give you a general exam.

Follow-up visits will be centered on specific healthcare goals such as strategies to improve or manage wellness or to treat an illness. 

Before going to any of your appointments, make a list of questions, concerns, and any symptoms you are experiencing. This way you won’t forget to tell your doctor something important or forget to ask a question. Preparation is key to a productive doctor visit.