What’s a Primary Care Physician (PCP)?

Lea este articulo en EspanolA primary care physician (PCP), or primary care provider, is a health care professional who practices general medicine. PCPs are our first stop for medical care. Most PCPs are doctors, but nurse practitioners and even physician assistants can sometimes also be PCPs.

A PCP is the person your child should see for a routine checkup or non-emergency medical care. If your child has a mild fever, cough, or rash, or is short of breath or nauseated, a PCP usually can find the cause and decide what to do about it.

Usually, PCPs can treat conditions in their own offices. If they can’t, they can refer you and your child to a trusted specialist. If your child needs ongoing treatment or is admitted to a hospital, the PCP may oversee the care, help you make decisions related to treatment, or refer you to other specialists if needed.

One of a PCP’s most important jobs is to help keep kids from getting sick in the first place. This is called preventive care.

The best preventive care means forming a relationship with a PCP you like and trust, taking your child for scheduled checkups and vaccines, and following the PCP’s advice for establishing a healthy lifestyle, managing weight, and getting the right amount of exercise.

Types of PCPs

Different types of PCPs treat kids and teens. Which is right for you depends on your family’s needs:

  • Family practitioners, or family medicine doctors, care for patients of all ages, from infants, kids and teens, to adults and the elderly.
  • Pediatricians care for babies, kids, and teens.
  • Internists, or internal medicine doctors, care for adults, but some see patients who are in their late teens.
  • Adolescent medicine specialists are pediatricians or internists who have additional training in caring for teens.
  • Combined internal medicine and pediatric specialists have training in both pediatrics and internal medicine, allowing them to bridge the gap between treating young patients and adults.
  • Obstetricians and gynecologists specialize in women’s health issues and are sometimes PCPs for girls who have started menstruating.
  • A nurse practitioner or physician assistant sometimes is the main provider a child sees at a doctor’s office.

When to Go to the PCP

A PCP should be your first option for any medical condition that isn’t an emergency. Call the PCP if your child has:

  • a high fever
  • ear pain
  • abdominal pain
  • a headache that doesn’t go away
  • a rash
  • mild wheezing
  • a persistent cough

When in doubt, call the PCP. Even if the PCP isn’t available, someone else in the office can talk with you and determine whether your child should go to the ER. On weekends and at night, PCPs often have answering services that allow them to get in touch with you if you leave a message.

When to Go to an Emergency Room

Go to the ER if your child:

  • has difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • has had a change in mental status, such as suddenly becoming unusually sleepy or difficult to wake, disoriented, or confused
  • has a cut in the skin that is bleeding and won’t stop
  • has a stiff neck along with a fever
  • has a rapid heartbeat that doesn’t slow down
  • accidentally ingests a poisonous substance or too much medication
  • has had more than minor head trauma

How to Find a PCP

To find a PCP, start by asking yourself what matters to you. For instance, you’ll want the PCP’s office to take your health insurance and, ideally, be close to home. Other things to consider include how helpful and friendly the staff is, how easy it is to get in touch with the PCP, and whether the PCP’s office hours will work with your schedule.

Ask for recommendations from friends, neighbors, relatives, and doctors or nurses you already know and trust.

Once you have a list of candidates, learn what you can about the PCP. For instance, does he or she:

  • come across as open and friendly or more formal?
  • prefer to treat conditions aggressively or take a “wait and see” approach?
  • try to handle things in the office or refer most patients to specialists?

Find out about any extra services: some offices also have specialists, mental health providers, dieticians, lactation consultants, and social workers on the premises. It can be convenient to have all of these services under one roof.

Your health insurance plan may have a directory of preferred PCPs, and many practices will let you meet with a potential provider to see if he or she seems like a good fit for your child. And remember, although it’s easier to find and stick with one PCP, if you feel your child isn’t getting the level of care you’re looking for, you can always switch to another PCP.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014