Which Practitioner Do I See, and When? | Hospitals

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Doctor Holding Stethoscope

Choosing a doctor

You just moved to a new city. Maybe your insurance plan has changed. Perhaps your doctor no longer fits your needs. Whatever the reason, choosing a doctor is an important step toward maintaining and improving your health and wellness. Whether you’ve got a pain in the neck that just won’t go away or a chronic condition that requires medication and periodic checkups, you’ll need to decide which practitioner works best for you and your family. Here’s a basic breakdown of the options:

A female doctor or nurse talks with a patient while measuring his blood glucose levels.

Internal medicine physician

This head-to-toe primary care physician, known as an internist, diagnoses and treats adults with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and offers general health care and preventive services. “I emphasize to people the tremendous importance of having that primary care physician,” says Dr. Lois Margaret Nora, president and CEO of the American Board of Medical Specialties. “They are often the best source of referral to a specialist in a particular area for the person who has complex illnesses, and [they] coordinate care across different specialists.”

Corrected on July 22, 2015: A previous version of this article misnamed an organization.

Choosing a doctor

You just moved to a new city. Maybe your insurance plan has changed. Perhaps your doctor no longer fits your needs. Whatever the reason, choosing a doctor is an important step toward maintaining and improving your health and wellness. Whether you’ve got a pain in the neck that just won’t go away or a chronic condition that requires medication and periodic checkups, you’ll need to decide which practitioner works best for you and your family. Here’s a basic breakdown of the options:

Internal medicine physician

This head-to-toe primary care physician, known as an internist, diagnoses and treats adults with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and offers general health care and preventive services. “I emphasize to people the tremendous importance of having that primary care physician,” says Dr. Lois Margaret Nora, president and CEO of the American Board of Medical Specialties. “They are often the best source of referral to a specialist in a particular area for the person who has complex illnesses, and [they] coordinate care across different specialists.”

Corrected on July 22, 2015: A previous version of this article misnamed an organization.

Family medicine physician

This is the one-stop-doc for your entire family’s health care needs, from cold and flu to ongoing conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. “Family physicians are trained to take care of the whole family, from pediatrics to geriatrics,” explains Dr. Wayne Riley, president of the American College of Physicians and clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Whereas internists only take adolescents about 16 and up, family medicine doctors are trained to take care of children. Sometimes, that’s more convenient and accessible for families in rural areas.”

Nurse practitioner or physician assistant

“Health care is a team sport,” Nora says. That’s why you may run into a nurse practitioner at your local retail pharmacy or at your primary doctor’s office, she says. Nurse practitioners provide care to all age groups for everything from the flu to urgent medical conditions or injuries, as well as chronic conditions like diabetes. They can diagnose, order and interpret tests, manage treatment plans and prescribe medications. Physician assistants can practice medicine with physicians and other providers, prescribe medications and visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes.

Corrected on July 22, 2015: A previous version of this article misstated the role of nurse practitioners and physicians assistants.

OB-GYN

An OB-GYN manages the reproductive health of women, performing preventive services, such as cancer screenings, and surgery; prescribing birth control; overseeing pregnancy; delivering infants; addressing menopause; and treating infections. Some will even handle primary care concerns in addition to reproductive issues. “It’s very common for young women to get most care from an OB-GYN. It just depends on the comfort level of the OB-GYN on primary care,” Riley says.

Pediatrician

Once you’ve had your baby, you’ll need a doctor to serve as your child’s “medical home,” providing tips on everything from medication dosages to management of that pesky rash. If you want to look beyond family medicine, this is the go-to doctor to ask, “What’s wrong with my child?” or to help keep your child healthy through every stage of development. Pediatricians are trained to diagnose and treat children with common and complex conditions, and can refer to specialists when necessary. “They also manage vaccination schedules” and diagnose and treat conditions in adolescents, Riley says. Some pediatricians run point on care until a child’s 21st birthday.

Psychologist or psychiatrist

Clinical psychologists often work hand-in-hand with psychiatrists to address mental health issues. Some specialize in stress reduction or cognitive behavioral therapy. The primary difference is that psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications. Psychologists often have Ph.D. or Psy.D. credentials, allowing them to counsel and test patients for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, relationship issues and more. Psychologists and psychiatrists play “an extraordinarily important role” in helping patients with both mental illness and life transitions, Nora says.

Surgeon

General surgeons usually operate on the head and neck, breast, skin and soft tissues, abdomen, arms and legs, and the gastrointestinal tract; they also perform surgeries related to the blood vessels or hormone system. They’re often trained in emergency procedures to treat bleeding, infections and bowel obstructions, for example. If you require a more specialized procedure, there’s an array of surgeons who focus on more specific areas, such as the brain (neurosurgeon), eyes (ophthalmologist) or lungs (cardiothoracic surgeon). “It just depends on what the initial evaluation and treatment plan calls for based on the referral,” Riley says.

Other specialists

Other medical specialists can include allergist-immunologists, who treat and manage allergies, asthma and immune system disorders; pulmonologists, who treat lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma; ophthalmologists, who can diagnose and treat eye issues; and otolaryngologists, who treat diseases of the ear, nose and throat. If you think you require a specialist, ask your primary care doctor for a referral.

Corrected on July 22, 2015: A previous version of this article misnamed an organization.

Corrected on July 22, 2015: A previous version of this article misstated the role of nurse practitioners and physicians assistants.



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