What is Primary Health Care?

Ken Black

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.

Primary health care providers coordinate a patient's care.
Primary health care providers coordinate a patient's care.

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.

Pediatricians provide primary health care to infants and children.
Pediatricians provide primary health care to infants and children.

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.

A family doctor will generally treat patients of all ages.
A family doctor will generally treat patients of all ages.

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Discussion Comments


The biggest reason I have stayed with the same primary doctor so many years is the relationship I have built with her.

I don't have to go through my entire history each time I go to the doctor. If I need an antibiotic for a urinary tract infection, or strep throat, it is a quick appointment.

All of my records and medical history are in one place. I know some people who don't really have a family doctor and just use a walk-in clinic when they need to be seen.

Their records are scattered all over the place, and one doctor never gets to see the whole picture.

I like the idea of building a relationship with my doctor. This is something I feel more comfortable with, and feel confident knowing I am getting the best care.


@honeybees - Many insurance companies will require a referral to a specialist, but not all of them. Sometimes it depends on the situation and severity of the medical condition, but all insurance health plans are different.

When my husband was having a lot of knee pain, he went to his primary health care doctor first. They took x-rays, and also set him up with an appointment for an orthopedic doctor.

The advantage to having your primary doctor set up this appointment is you can usually be seen much sooner. If you call and try to schedule an appointment yourself with a specialist, there are a lot more hoops you have to jump through.


My family doctor is the first person anyone in my family sees when they need to have something checked out.

He has taken care of our family healthcare for many years, and knows the history of all of my family members.

It is also much more economical to see him because he is able to take care of most of our needs. A specialist charges a lot more money, and I trust my family doctor to give me the best care.

If there is a medical issue beyond what he is capable of taking care of, he does not hesitate to refer me to someone who can deal with the problem.

Don't most insurance plans require you to be referred to a specialist for a primary health care physician?

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