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A primary care physician or primary care provider (PCP) is a physician who provides both the first contact for a person with an undiagnosed health concern as well as continuing care of varied medical conditions, not limited by cause, organ system, or diagnosis. This term is primarily used in the United States, although this is a recent occurrence. In years past in the US and in Britain (and many other English-speaking countries), the equivalent term was/is “general practitioner”.
All physicians first complete medical school (MD, MBBS, or DO). To become primary care physicians, medical school graduates then undertake postgraduate training in primary care programs, such as family medicine (also called family practice or general practice in some countries), pediatrics or internal medicine. Some HMOs consider gynecologists as PCPs for the care of women, and have allowed certain subspecialists to assume PCP responsibilities for selected patient types, such as allergists caring for people with asthma and nephrologists acting as PCPs for patients on kidney dialysis.
Emergency physicians are sometimes counted as primary care physicians. Emergency physicians see many primary care cases, but in contrast to family physicians, pediatricians and internists, are trained and organized to focus on episodic care, acute intervention, stabilization, and discharge or transfer or referral to definitive care, with less of a focus on chronic conditions and limited provision for continuing care.
A set of skills and scope of practice may define a primary care physician, generally including basic diagnosis and treatment of common illnesses and medical conditions. Diagnostic techniques include interviewing the patient to collect information on the present symptoms, prior medical history and other health details, followed by a physical examination. Many PCPs are trained in basic medical testing, such as interpreting results of blood or other patient samples, electrocardiograms, or x-rays. More complex and time-intensive diagnostic procedures are usually obtained by referral to specialists, due to either special training with a technology, or increased experience and patient volume that renders a risky procedure safer for the patient. After collecting data, the PCP arrives at a differential diagnosis and, with the participation of the patient, formulates a plan including (if appropriate) components of further testing, specialist referral, medication, therapy, diet or life-style changes, patient education, and follow up results of treatment. Primary care physicians also counsel and educate patients on safe health behaviors, self-care skills and treatment options, and provide screening tests and immunizations.
A primary care physician is usually the first medical practitioner contacted by a patient, due to factors such as ease of communication, accessible location, familiarity, and increasingly issues of cost and managed care requirements. In some countries, for example Norway, residents are registered as patients of a (local) doctor, and must contact that doctor for referral to any other. Also many health maintenance organizations position PCPs as "gatekeepers", who regulate access to more costly procedures or specialists. Ideally, the primary care physician acts on behalf of the patient to collaborate with referral specialists, coordinate the care given by varied organizations such as hospitals or rehabilitation clinics, act as a comprehensive repository for the patient's records, and provide long-term management of chronic conditions. Continuous care is particularly important for patients with medical conditions that encompass multiple organ systems and require prolonged treatment and monitoring, such as diabetes and hypertension.
Studies that compare the knowledge base and quality of care provided by generalists versus specialists usually find that the specialists are more knowledgeable and provide better care. However, these studies examine the quality of care in the domain of the specialists. In addition, these studies need to account for clustering of patients and physicians.
Studies of the quality of preventive health care find the opposite results – primary care physicians perform best. An analysis of elderly patients found that patients seeing generalists, as compared to patients seeing specialists, were more likely to receive influenza vaccination. In health promotion counseling, studies of self-reported behavior found that generalists were more likely than internal medicine specialists to counsel patients and to screen for breast cancer.
Exceptions may be diseases that are so common that primary care physicians develop their own expertise. A study of patients with acute low back pain found the primary care physicians provided equivalent quality of care, but at lower costs than orthopedic specialists.
Factors associated with quality of care by primary care physicians:
The dissemination of information to generalists compared to specialists is complicated. Two studies found specialists were more likely to adopt COX-2 drugs before the drugs were recalled by the FDA. One of the studies went on to state "using COX-2s as a model for physician adoption of new therapeutic agents, specialists were more likely to use these new medications for patients likely to benefit but were also significantly more likely to use them for patients without a clear indication". Similarly, a separate study found that specialists were less discriminating in their choice of journal reading.
In the United States, the number of medical students entering family practice training dropped by 50% between 1997 and 2005. In 1998, half of internal medicine residents chose primary care, but by 2006, over 80% became specialists. A survey Research by the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts that by 2025 the United States will be short 35,000 to 44,000 adult care primary care physicians.
Causes parallel the evolutionary changes occurring in the US medical system: payment based on quantity of services delivered, not quality; aging of the population increases the prevalence and complexity of chronic health conditions, most of which are handled in primary care settings; and increasing emphasis on life-style changes and preventative measures, often poorly covered by health insurance or not at all. In 2004, the median income of specialists in the US was twice that of PCPs, and the gap is widening. Discontent by practicing primary care internists is discouraging trainees from entering primary care; in a 2007 survey of 1,177 graduating US medical students, only 2% planned to enter a general internal medicine career, and lifestyle was emphasized over the higher subspecialty pay in their decision. Primary care practices in the United States increasingly depend on foreign medical graduates to fill depleted ranks.
Developing countries face an even more critical disparity in primary care practitioners. The Pan American Health Organization reported in 2005 that "...the Americas region has made important progress in health, but significant challenges and disparities remain. Among the most important is the need to extend quality health care to all sectors of the population...Experience over the last 27 years shows that health systems that adhere to the principles of primary health care produce greater efficiency and better health outcomes in terms of both individual and public health..."  The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified worsening trends in access to PCPs and other primary care workers, both in the developed and the developing nations:
A survey of 6,000 primary care doctors in seven countries revealed disparities in several areas that affect quality of care. Differences did not follow trends of the cost of care; primary care physicians in the United States lagged behind their counterparts in other countries, despite the fact that the US spends two to three times as much per capita. Arrangements for after-hours care were almost twice as common in the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand as in Canada and the United States, where patients must rely on emergency facilities. Other major disparities include automated systems to remind patients about follow-up care, give patients test results or warn of harmful drug interactions. There were differences as well among primary care doctors, regarding financial incentives to improve the quality of care.