By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Primary healthcare providers play an indispensable role in the healthcare system to prevent and manage common health conditions. They may guide patients to make healthy decisions and recommend treatment depending on the symptoms of diseases that present. Their role is particularly important in the early stages of the disease.
Primary care may be explained as the range of first full medical contact and ongoing care for a patient whose symptoms, health problems or signs have not been diagnosed, whatever the organ involved, the patient group, the origin of the clinical issue or the diagnosis.
It involves a comprehensive set of services such as:
- Health promotion
- Preventive health
- Health education
- Diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, whether acute or chronic
The advantages of primary care include its location in the community of the patient, ensuring ready access, a personal physician, and also free availability of referral services to specialists in case of need.
There are several different types of primary healthcare providers who differ according to their educational background, experience and the services they are able to provide. The most common of these are outlined in more detail below.
Primary Care Physician
The primary care physician is the first entry point for much of the general population. These physicians are often the people who create entry into the healthcare system for any medical issues that may arise. In addition, they are responsible for coordinating the overall healthcare of their patients. They are usually family medicine, internal medicine or paediatric physicians. In addition, many women choose an obstetrician or gynecologist as their primary care doctor.
Primary care physicians play many important roles to improve health outcomes. These may include:
- Encouraging patients to take preventive measures for their health (e.g. stopping smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet)
- Promoting health initiatives to improve patient health
- Screening patients for early signs of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancers
- Educating patients about their health and providing relevant information about diseases and treatments
- Counseling patients about their health and giving appropriate advice when applicable
- Diagnosing and treating illnesses based on the presenting symptoms and relevant guidelines
Each general practitioner has a unique style in the way that they provide healthcare to their patients. For this reason, it is important for each individual to find a doctor that they know and can trust with decisions about their health.
Nurse practitioners or physician assistants can also provide primary healthcare services to patients. Their educational background and training differs from that of general practitioners, and there may be limitations in terms of health insurance for their involvement, but they can provide quality primary care in several situations.
Family Practice Doctors
Also known as family medicine doctors, these primary healthcare providers consult with a wide range of patients, including infants, children, teenagers, adults and seniors. Family practice doctors have a broad knowledge of the body at every stage of life, which is useful for their varied patient base.
Internal Medicine Doctors
Also known as internists, internal medicine doctors have a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the internal organs of the adult body. In general, they may care for people aged over the age of 14 years. Some of these practitioners may also provide specialist services, such as gynecological care, dermatological care or sports medicine.
Gynecologist or Obstetrician
The gynecologist plays a key role in the primary healthcare services for many women, particularly through the reproductive and menopausal years. They have an extensive knowledge base of the structure and function of the female organs in health and disease, and experience with sexual health. They can assist in screening and preventive care for women’s cancers and common female health conditions in the relevant stages of life.
Geriatricians specialize in the health of patients over the age of 60, and are involved in both primary and secondary healthcare. They may assist in physical and mental assessment of elderly patients, are often required to evaluate such patients after falls, and are specialized in the management of medications for this patient group.. They can also help to address memory issues, independence for daily living, and other distinctive characteristics of aging.
A pediatrician has specialized knowledge of medical services and health care for children, from newborns to the age of 21 years. As in the case of geriatricians, they may be involved with both primary and secondary healthcare of patients.
Reviewed by Dr Liji Thomas, MD.
Last Updated: Jun 29, 2016