Skip to main content

What is primary care?

iStock 1157858320

The term “primary care” was first introduced in the US in 1961. Though most people have referred to their “family doctor” throughout history, in the 1960s primary care came to be known as separate care from that provided by a growing number of specialists. In fact, primary care was so named because the primary care physician is typically the first stop for a patient who may need additional services such as a visit to a specialty provider or laboratory.

In 1966, the Millis Commission defined the primary care physician as a physician who “will serve as the primary medical resource and counselor to an individual or a family. When a patient needs hospitalization, the services of other medical specialists, or other medical or paramedical assistance, the primary physician will see that the necessary arrangements are made, giving such responsibility to others as is appropriate, and retaining his own continuing and comprehensive responsibility.”

Today, the primary care physician quite often acts as the medical home for the patient, coordinating care with specialty providers, laboratories, and healthcare facilities. The primary care physician “listens to the patient, makes diagnoses, manages, and screens for other health care problems. The clinician educates and communicates with the patient and others who may be involved including other specialists when appropriate.”

Primary care is being recognized for its importance in the quality of healthcare in the US. Many states are emphasizing the need for sufficient funding and appropriate legislation to prioritize primary care.

Primary care providers can include physicians, physician assistants, and nurses. Providers get to know their patients, use technology such as electronic health records (EHRs) to track and manage their patients’ medical information, and work with the patients to ensure their healthcare plan is effective. The primary care physician can play a significant role in improved quality of care as well as reduced healthcare costs.