Primary health care is a term applied to care that is done initially by a general medical doctor, such as a pediatrician, family doctor, general practitioner, or internist. These doctors generally do not specialize in a particular type of ailment, and usually represent the first stop a patient will make after coming down with an illness or injury. This represents the patient's primary health care provider, or first contact.
Many of the common ailments developed by patients can be handled by a primary health care provider. For example, a simple ear infection can be easily diagnosed and treated by a general practitioner. If complications develop from that infection, or if the patient has a history of ear infections that put him or her in a higher risk category for complications, then a specialist may be called in for treatment. Seeking a specialist is not rare, but the vast majority of the time illnesses can be handled through primary health care.
While doctors in primary health do not specialize in any particular type of illness or injury, they may specialize in a category of patient. For example, a pediatrician is will only treat infants, children and adolescents. An internist is a primary care doctor who treats adults, often older adults. A family doctor will generally treat patients of all ages. All represent types of primary care physicians.
If the primary health care provider cannot treat the situation, he or she will often make referral to a physician with specialized training. A person suffering, or suspected to be suffering, from cancer will likely get a referral to an oncologist, for example. Those suffering broken bones may see an orthopedic doctor. In some cases, this is simply done as a precaution. Most doctors have the training necessary to treat a simple fracture, but may feel more comfortable sending the patient to see an orthopedic doctor. In other cases, the doctor's malpractice insurance carrier may prevent that doctor from providing certain types of care, or refuse to cover any damages resulting from that treatment.
In most cases, for people without chronic conditions, the primary health care physician will be the one with whom the closest relationship will be built. This is simply because this is the doctor that will be seen more than any of the others. This familiarity can be especially beneficial for the doctor, who will understand the patient's history a little better than any other physician. The primary care provider is also usually the cheapest for the patient as well.