What is a doctor?

What is a doctor? What kind of doctors are there? Which one should you go to? Learn which kind of doctor or health provider to visit.

docteur masculin avec garçon
Photo: iStock/yacobchuk

What is a doctor?

A doctor is a person who is trained to treat sick people. In the USA, there are many kinds of doctors and other medical workers. Americans call medical workers “healthcare providers” or “medical providers.” These are people who help you when you are sick or injured.

What kind of doctors are there?

There are three types of medical providers you may need:

1. Primary care providers
2. Specialists
3. Emergency medical services

Who you see for help will depend on your health issue.

1. Primary care providers

Primary care providers (PCPs) provide basic, everyday care and a range of healthcare services to individuals and families for common medical problems. A PCP is usually the first medical person you see when you have a problem.

Who can be a primary care provider?

Your PCP may be a doctor (also called a physician in the USA), a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. All members of your family may see the same PCP, or you may see a number of people all based at your local health center. You may see the same PCP for many years.

Here are a few examples of when you would see your family doctor:

  • for a yearly health check-up
  • if your son or daughter had an ear infection
  • when you don’t feel well but it is not an emergency
  • if you needed to get immunizations to apply for citizenship
  • for preventative care

How do I find a primary care provider?

There will be a primary care provider in your community. Most communities have health centers or health clinics. You can ask friends and neighbors, “What is a doctor that you can recommend?”. Your resettlement office or mentor can also help you find a family doctor. Or you can look in FindHello for healthcare providers.

Preventative care

Your health insurance may offer preventative health benefits. Try to use them! These are tests and other programs that help to stop you from developing health problems. They include getting check-ups on your health even if you do not feel sick or have not noticed anything wrong. A wide variety of health screenings (tests) are available for free. Find out which screenings are covered by most health insurance plans.

2. Specialists

Your primary care provider may send you to a specialist for certain injuries and illnesses. A specialist is a healthcare provider who focuses on a specific body system or part of the body. For example, a dermatologist cares for the skin, a gastroenterologist cares for the digestive system, and an orthopedist cares for bones.

Here are a few examples of when you would see a specialist:

  • you have stomach problems, and your PCP sends you for testing
  • a mole on your skin has changed shape or color
  • your son or daughter has not started to speak

Some specialists just treat children or elders.

Referrals to specialists

A referral is a recommendation that you see another healthcare provider (a specialist, for instance). You may need to ask your PCP for a referral before you see a specialist. The specialist might require this or your insurance company might require it. Be sure you review your health insurance plan to see if a referral is required before making an appointment with a specialist. That way you can be sure your insurance will cover the visit.

3. Emergency medical care

What if someone in your family becomes sick late in the day or over the weekend? What if you have a serious problem that requires immediate care? Making an appointment with your PCP may not be possible.  But there are other places to get immediate help:

Urgent care and walk-in clinics

Urgent care and walk-in clinics often have evening and weekend hours and provide care for minor medical problems without an appointment. Take note of the addresses, open hours, and contact information for urgent care clinics near to where you live.

Here are a few examples of when you might visit an urgent care office:

  • during a sporting event, your son hits his head
  • you have a very bad cough and you think you might have an infection

Hospital emergency department

A hospital’s emergency department provides care for life-threatening and urgent healthcare needs. Most emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Be sure you know the location and contact information of the emergency department nearest to your home.

Here are a few examples for when you would go to the hospital:

  • your infant or baby has a very high fever on the weekend
  • your wife is going into labor
  • your husband has broken his leg

If you go to an emergency room, you may still have to wait for several hours before you will be seen by a doctor unless it is a life-threatening emergency.

Emergency medical services

The phone number to call for emergency medical help is 911.

The USA has a good system of emergency medical services. It includes care by trained medical responders and ambulances to take people to hospitals.  Emergency medical services often work with or police and firefighting departments. Sometimes they are run by hospitals or private companies.