A primary care physician is a general practice doctor who treats basic medical conditions. Primary care doctors administer physicals and required vaccinations. They can help diagnose health problems and either provide care or refer patients to specialists if the condition requires. They are often the first doctor most patients see when they have a health concern.
In the United States, many health insurance plans require a referral from a primary care physician before a patient can see a specialist. The same is true in many European countries; for example, in Norway every patient is registered with a primary care doctor who is their first point of contact. In England and Canada, both of which offer health care as part of a government sponsored plan, patients are also encouraged to see primary care physicians first.
There are many reasons for requiring patients to see a primary healthcare provider first. Cost containment is one reason, since primary care doctors are often less expensive then specialists. Proper diagnosis and referral to the correct specialist is another factor. Patients may be unaware of the cause of their symptoms, and a primary care physician can help identify the underlying medical reasons.
Primary care physicians do more than just refer patients to specialists; they also provide basic medical services and treatment. Most diagnose and treat common medical conditions, from strep throat to bacterial infections and simple viruses. These physicians can also read and interpret x-rays, blood tests, and urine tests. They can also help manage the treatment of chronic conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure.
Primary care physicians also specialize in preventative medicine. One of their primary functions is to help patients learn to be healthy and maintain proper habits to promote overall health. This includes patient education on diet, smoking, and other lifestyle choices. Studies have shown that patients under the care of a primary physician tend to receive more frequent vaccinations and to be better screened for dangerous illnesses, including cancer.
In the United States, primary care physicians attend medical school and do their residency in primary care facilities. In Europe, primary healthcare providers have a similar educational track, also attending school and attaining clinical experience as a primary care physician. Residency for these physicians is usually shorter than residency for other specialties.