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What's a Primary Care Physician (PCP)?

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A 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 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
  • following the PCP's advice for establishing a healthy lifestyle, managing weight, and getting the right amount of exercise

What Are the Types of PCPs?

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

  • Family doctors, or family physicians, 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 extra training in caring for teens.
  • Combined internal medicine and pediatric specialists have training in both pediatrics and internal medicine.
  • Obstetrician-gynecologists (OB-GYNs) specialize in women's health issues and are sometimes PCPs for girls who have started menstruating.
  • Nurse practitioners or physician assistants sometimes are the main providers a child or teen sees at a doctor's office.

When to Go to the PCP

Call your PCP first about any health-related questions or concerns that aren’t an emergency. These can include:

  • a high fever
  • ear pain
  • belly pain
  • a headache that doesn't go away
  • a rash
  • mild wheezing
  • a lasting cough

When in doubt, call the PCP. Even if the PCP isn't available, someone else in the office can talk with you and decide whether your child should go to the ER. On weekends and at night, PCPs often have answering services that let them 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 trouble breathing or is short of breath
  • has a change in mental status, such as suddenly becoming unusually sleepy or hard to wake, disoriented, or confused
  • has a cut in the skin that won’t stop bleeding
  • has a stiff neck along with a fever
  • has a rapid heartbeat that doesn't slow down
  • ingests a poisonous substance or too much medicine
  • has had more than minor head trauma

How Can I Find a PCP?

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

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

When you have a list of candidates, learn what you can about the PCP. For instance, does the PCP:

  • 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, dietitians, lactation consultants, and social workers on-site. It’s convenient to have all 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 provider to see if they’re a good fit. And while it's easier to stay with one care provider, if you feel your child isn't getting the right level of care, you can choose another PCP.

Date reviewed: November 2020