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Published on June 28, 2022

family and healthcare concept

Internal vs. Family Medicine: Who’s Who in Primary Care

Most often, your primary care clinician and their entire team is your first stop for care. Many people think of it as their “doctor’s office” or clinic.

“That’s why it’s important to find a primary care physician or provider who can get to know you and your health on a personal level through an ongoing relationship. You can benefit your own health by seeing your primary care team at yearly checkups, or anytime you’re experiencing pain or troubling symptoms,” said Kevin Post, DO, Chief Medical Officer for Avera Medical Group. “If you need specialty care, your primary care clinician can guide you.”

Whether it’s MD, DO, NP, PA or some other combination of letters, the health care professionals who serve you are identified by initials after their name that signify their credentials. Credentials mean they’re well-trained, licensed to practice medicine and certified by professional boards.

The clinicians you’re most likely to make an appointment to see fall into two general categories – physicians and advanced practice providers (APP).

What’s the Difference between an MD and DO?

Depending on the program they selected, physicians might have an MD (medical doctor) or DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) credential. DOs are fully trained as medical physicians, just like an MD. Their training emphasizes the body’s interconnected system of nerves, muscles and bones.

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Types of Primary Care Physicians

Many physicians you would see in local clinic practice general or family medicine. Above and beyond their pre-med bachelor’s degree, they completed four years of medical school plus three years of family practice residency in which they developed their skills in a supervised, on-the-job setting.

They provide general care for people of all ages, for examples conducting medical exams and checkups, diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries, ordering tests and prescribing medications. Numerous family practitioners also offer prenatal and obstetrical care.

Beyond family practitioners, physicians in these specialties can serve your needs for primary care, depending on your age and stage of life:

  • Internal medicine physicians – These physicians specialize in adult care. They place an emphasis on managing chronic conditions that come along as people age, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and more. They earn their internal medicine specialty credentials during their three-year residency.
  • OB/GYNs – These physicians are also specialists in women’s health (gynecologic and obstetrical care), but many women choose to see an OB/GYN physician for yearly visits and other primary care needs. Beyond medical school they pursue the OB/GYN specialty training in three or more years of internships and residency.
  • Pediatricians – These doctors specialize in care for children and youth, age 0-18. In addition to medical school they have at least three years of pediatric residency.

Advanced Practice Providers

APPs are trained, licensed and credentialed to perform medical activities similar to a physician, including medical exams and prescribing medications. Common APPs are nurse practitioners and physician assistants. They go through a training program that’s specific to becoming an NP or PA.

  • Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who go on to complete more education at the master’s or doctoral levels. Their credentials may include CNP (certified nurse practitioner), DNP (doctor of nursing practice), ARNP (advanced registered nurse practitioner) or FNP (family nurse practitioner). Depending on the program NPs may receive two to four years of additional training above their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.
  • Certified nurse midwives (CNM are another type of APP who deliver prenatal care, care at delivery and well-woman care for women of any age or stage of life.
  • Physician assistants are trained at the master’s level through a PA program that is typically three years in length. PA-C (physician-assistant certified) is a common credential.

APPs may work as part of a care team with physicians, or they may be the main provider in a clinic – especially in smaller communities. You can make an appointment to see them, just as you would a physician. APPs always have ready access to a physician for further consultation when needed.

When You Need Specialty Care

When you have need for specialty care, whether that’s in orthopedics, oncology (cancer), dermatology, behavioral health, cardiology, endocrinology, surgery, rheumatology, urology, urogynecology, nephrology, neurology, therapy and more, you can count on your primary care physician or provider to refer you to the right specialist or subspecialist.

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Avera is a health ministry rooted in the Gospel. Our mission is to make a positive impact in the lives and health of persons and communities by providing quality services guided by Christian values.

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