Your dreams of becoming a doctor are anything but new. You’ve known since you were young it’s what you’re destined to do. But the time is nearing when you’ll have to make some decisions on what that dream will entail. After all, there are many types of doctors out there – which type will you be?
Will you be performing open heart surgery in a hospital or doing skin biopsies in a clinic? Will you be working with children or adult patients? Will you specialize in specific conditions or treat a large variety of ailments?
There are many factors to consider when making a decision, and you’re off to the right start by researching your options. But all too often, primary care physicians are overlooked in the conversation of potential medical specialties.
So what do primary care physicians do, and why are they in such high demand? We enlisted those on the frontlines to help answer your questions. Join us as we take a closer look at this vast area of medicine.
What is primary care, exactly?
In short, primary care encompasses a wide array of health concerns in all types of patients. If your stomach has been hurting, you may visit your primary care physician to discuss the symptoms. If your child is sprouting a strange rash, you may go see your primary care physician to have it examined.
Primary care physicians are the connections patients need to the increasingly fragmented world of health care. They’re the ones that patients get to develop long-term relationships with. They’re the ones patients come to rely on, even when being circulated to various specialists. Primary care physicians are often the first point of entry into the convoluted health care system.
“Primary care doctors often develop strong relationships with their patients over their many years of caring for the same people and their families,” says Dr. Lisa Doggett, MPH, FAAFP. She notes this as one of the biggest rewards of the job.
Primary care is provided by physicians who are trained for first contact and continuing care for patients with undiagnosed signs, symptoms, and health concerns, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
Another distinguishing factor of this specialty is that the health concerns primary care physicians address are not limited by origin, whether biological, behavioral, or social. They do not limit their care to health concerns of a specific organ system or diagnosis, either. Because of this, primary care physicians see almost everything under the sun.
"Whenever I think that I have seen it all, a patient will show up proving that I have not."
“Whenever I think that I have seen it all, a patient will show up proving that I have not,” says Dr. Linda Girgis, FAAFP, a St. George’s University graduate with 17 years of experience in primary care.
What does a primary care physician do?
With all the conditions that fall under the umbrella of primary care, you’re probably curious about what a typical day is like for these physicians. The truth is that no two days are ever the same.
“Primary care physicians see everything,” Dr. Doggett says. She says the most common conditions she encounters include diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, headaches, and abdominal pain. Most family doctors focus considerably on preventive care, and they may perform procedures like skin biopsies, toenail removals, or joint injections.
“We can take care of gynecological problems, and some family physicians even deliver babies,” Dr. Doggett explains. “We also treat a lot of mental health conditions, and we are often the first doctor to see some of the more bizarre conditions, like tropical diseases, unusual skin rashes, and neurological problems.”
As you can see, primary care is far from a medical niche. They’re the exact opposite, treating an entire spectrum of conditions. Whereas some specialists focus on a single organ, condition, or age group throughout their career, a primary care physician is a jack-of-all-trades whose general medical knowledge spans across the board.
And in today’s health care climate, they’re needed more than ever.
Why are primary care physicians in high demand?
If you’re weighing your options for medical specialties, you’d be wise to include primary care at the top of your list — especially if employability is important to you.
“Medical students should strongly consider primary care because it will allow them the opportunity to work in any part of the country or world,” Dr. Doggett says. “You’ll never have to worry about finding a job, and you’ll have the satisfaction of providing a critical service to your patients and communities.”
"Medical students should strongly consider primary care because it will allow them the opportunity to work in any part of the country or world."
Dr. Doggett is right. In fact, there is a dire need for more primary care physicians in the years to come. A report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimates a shortage of 21,100 to 55,200 primary care physicians in the US by 2032.
Of the millions of doctor visits each year, more than half are made to primary care physicians.
“It’s a hot field,” Dr. Girgis says. “Primary care doctors are being sought after, and with structure in the health care system, where many patients are required to have a primary care physician to be referred elsewhere, this can be expected to continue.”
What are some benefits of being a primary care physician?
Whether you’re an aspiring physician or a current medical student, you need to make a number of considerations when selecting a specialty. Will it allow you to live your desired lifestyle? Will it require you to uproot your family? Will it provide you with advancement opportunities?
For those considering a career in primary care, one advantage is the potential for an ideal work-life balance. This is especially attractive when compared to other specialties, according to Dr. Girgis.
“For doctors, work-life balance is a difficult accomplishment,” she explains. “Primary care is unique in medicine because there is so much flexibility in how it can be practiced. It is also well suited to part-time opportunities.”
She goes on to explain that many primary care physicians now practice outpatient-only medicine, thus avoiding late-night admissions in the hospital. These doctors also have the option of going into private practice or working under a hospital system, both of which have their share of benefits and challenges.
One undeniable advantage of working in primary care is the variety. Not only will your days be spent examining all kinds of conditions with patients of all different backgrounds, but you also have options regarding where you’d like to work.
“The variety of job options is impressive — rural versus urban, hospital versus clinic, private practice versus a public setting,” Dr. Doggett explains. “It is fairly easy to move from patient care to academic settings, public health, industry, or administration.”
Is primary care right for you?
So instead of asking what does a primary care physician do? You should really be asking, what doesn’t a primary care physician do? These physicians are on the frontlines of public health in communities everywhere, helping to minimize the impact of diseases like diabetes. Primary care physicians do it all, making them truly invaluable members of the medical field.
Looking for more insider perspective from seasoned medical professionals? Check out our article, “Doctors Reveal 12 Things No One Tells You About Pursuing a Career in Medicine.”
* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.
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