What are the Differences Between a PCP, a Family Doctor, and an Internist?

What are the Differences Between a PCP, a Family Doctor, and an Internist?

The field of medicine is a vast one. It comprises so many names and titles that may be tricky to understand. For instance, some people may find it hard to differentiate between family doctors, primary care practitioners (PCPs), and internists. These doctors work in nearly the same spheres of healthcare but understanding the differences will help you to know which doctor is right for you or your loved one.

Primary care practitioner (PCP)

The following types of doctors are classified as primary care practitioners:

  • Nurse practitioner
  • Family medicine practitioner
  • Internist
  • Physician assistant
  • Geriatrician
  • Pediatrician

Primary care practitioners treat different health issues. They also assist with coordinating your medical treatment with different specialists.

Who does a primary care practitioner treat?

When you get sick (whether it’s an ordinary cold or something else), the first doctor you visit is your PCP. Primary care practitioners are trained to treat everyone irrespective of age. They treat a wide variety of health conditions, and also help with the prevention of diseases and maintenance.

If the PCP cannot handle the condition, they will refer you to a specialist.

It is important to note that your PCP can handle most of your healthcare needs. However, if your ailment is beyond their scope, they will refer you to a specialist or another doctor.

A primary care practitioner is also trained to coordinate treatments across a wide variety of specialties.

For instance, if your gallbladder is infected, your PCP may refer you to a gastroenterologist. After consulting with the gastroenterologist, you will be referred to a surgeon for removal of the gallbladder.

While your treatment is handled by these specialists, your PCP performs the task of overseeing the whole series of events.

How often should you see your primary care physician?

Whether you are experiencing the flu or you have blood sugar problems, your PCP’s office should be your first port of call.

Does insurance cover your visit to the PCP?

In most cases, yes! However, some PCPs offer services that are not covered by insurance. Ensure that you verify what services are covered by your insurance plans before you visit.

Let’s look at two types of primary care practitioners: family doctors & internists.

Family doctor

He or she can treat and care for anyone. It is important to note that a family doctor can care for every member of a family at any stage of their life.

Who does a family doctor treat?

A family doctor offers healthcare services for a person from his or her infancy until old age. He or she is your go-to doctor whenever you experience minor issues, such as bronchitis, and severe health conditions, like high blood pressure.

Your family doctor is your health advocate. They offer guidance on a healthy lifestyle for chronic health conditions.

If your family doctor also provides healthcare services for other members of your family, they may assist you to overcome potential genetic conditions like heart disease, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Most people will benefit from having a doctor who has a deep understanding of their personal medical history as well as their family history. And if your family doctor is overwhelmed by your health condition, they may refer you to a specialist.


A family doctor typically completes four years in a medical school and three years of residency. They can treat anyone of any age group.

During their residency, they are trained in a variety of specialties, ranging from gynecology to psychiatry.

What’s the right time to see your family doctor?

Consulting your family doctor is the beginning of your recovery journey. For instance, you may consult your family doctor because you need a prescription for poison ivy. You may also consult him or her because you are feeling dizzy and don’t know why.

Is your visit covered by insurance?

Yes, except in some cases. Some family doctors may offer services that are not covered by some insurance companies – like counseling for smoking cessation.

Confirm from your doctor’s office if their services are covered by insurance.


An internist treats only adults.

While a family doctor treats people of all ages, an internist focuses only on older adolescents and adults.

An internist treats common health conditions such as sprains, strains, and even diabetes. If they are unable to handle your condition, they will transfer your case to a specialist.


Just like a family doctor, an internist completes 4 years of medical school and 3 years of residency.

During residency, they are trained in various specialties in adult medicine like endocrinology, cardiology, and palliative care.

When should I see my internist?

Your internist is your first-line source of treatment. He or she is trained to treat any adult health condition. An internist can treat a broken wrist, a sinus infection, and other minor health conditions.

Your internist can also treat serious health conditions like high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

Is your visit covered by insurance?

In most cases, yes! However, some internists may provide services that aren’t covered by insurance.

Examples of these services are weight loss counseling and mental health counseling. Before using any service, confirm from your insurance company whether such a service is covered or not.

Do you need a personal doctor?

Absolutely! Everyone needs a personal doctor. Having an office that knows your medical history is very important. If you have an emergency, you will have where to run to and that saves you a lot of time.

Also, some insurance firms don’t cover specialist consultations without a referral from a primary care practitioner. So, protect yourself against expensive medical bills by registering with a practice that you trust.

How to get a doctor

If you have an active insurance plan, then use your company’s list of preferred doctors. It guarantees that your insurance will be accepted. You can also ask your family and friends for recommendations. If you are new to the area, you can seek recommendations from online resources, like the National Committee for Quality Assurance, and Healthgrades.

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