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What is a primary care physician (PCP)?

A primary care physician is a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) who is trained to evaluate a patient for overall health and to treat illnesses. Family doctors, internists, obstetrician/gynecologists and pediatricians are all primary care physicians. In order to diagnose health problems, a primary care physician may request lab tests or refer a patient to a specialist. Once a patient is under the care of a specialist for diagnosis and treatment, the primary care physician often continues to serve as the coordinator for the patient's care team.

Becoming a primary care physician requires four years of medical school and a three- or four-year residency (working in a hospital or clinic under supervision). Additionally, the primary care physician must obtain a license to practice medicine and is required by some states to complete continuing medical education (CME) credits. Primary care physicians who are board certified must also pass periodic exams that test their knowledge.

A primary care provider (PCP—not to be confused with the recreational street drug!) is your (or your family’s) go-to for ongoing care. If you have a managed care health insurance plan, your PCP is the ringleader who manages and coordinates all of your healthcare needs—including getting referrals to specialists and even visiting you in the hospital to make sure the situation is under control and being managed properly.

Dr. John J. Connolly
Healthcare Insurance & Policy Specialist

A primary care provider is a label for a primary care physician, usually an Internist or Family Practitioner. The term is sometimes applied to Licensed Nurse Practitioners who may also provide primary care to patients.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.