How do you navigate the healthcare web of doctors, nurses, specialists, and other healthcare providers? Step one: understand the difference between all of them. Step two: choose the providers that work best for you. Step three: go forth and receive healthcare!
A PCP, which is an abbreviation that's sometimes used for both primary care provider and primary care physician, is the healthcare provider you see for your annual physicals, referrals, and common medical problems. Sometimes you have to designate a specific PCP for insurance purposes. This person actually doesn't have to be a doctor - they can be either a doctor, a physician assistant, or a nurse practitioner.
A medical specialist is a doctor who has been educated and trained extensively in a specific area of medicine. In some instances, a specialist might serve as a PCP (like pediatricians for children or geriatricians for older adults), but most of the time they only work in the area of their speciality. You'll usually see a specialist when your PCP refers you to one. You'd be referred to a cardiologist for heart problems, a neurologist for brain problems, a dietician for nutrition problems, etc.
Depending on your insurance, you may be able to choose between a doctor, physician assistant (PA), or nurse practitioner (NP) for your PCP. Physician assistants and nurse practitioners receive different certifications than doctors, but they can provide many of the same services and might have more time to dedicate to appointments than doctors. They have advanced education and clinical training and can prescribe medication without physician supervision in many states.
When choosing a PCP, make sure the providers you're choosing from are all covered by your insurance. After you've taken that step, you can look at things like the convenience of their location, referrals from friends, whether you feel comfortable in their offices, or other concerns that are important to you. You can choose your PCP based on the quality of their toilet paper if you want; it's totally up to you and your preferences!
For specialists, you might not be able to choose which specific person you're referred to. If you do have the option, you can research different specialists in your network and let your PCP know about your preferences. For example, some women prefer to have a female obstetrician or gynecologist. If it's possible, your PCP will try to accommodate you. In certain instances, a specialist could become someone you see regularly, so it's worth it to find someone you're comfortable with if possible.