The medical industry is filled with specialties, and the different names for providers can be very confusing. We’ll show you the difference between a family doctor and primary care practitioner and how you can decide which one is right for you.  


Internist, specialist, primary care physician, physician assistant — the number of titles in the medical field can be overwhelming for patients who just want to feel better. Knowing which practitioner is right for you is an integral part of your health, and finding the right provider can help you tackle important health issues at the earliest stages of development. But which one do you choose? 

The decision between a primary care doctor vs. family medicine is one only you can make, but understanding the differences can make that choice easier. Here are a few differences between a family doctor vs. primary care. 

What is a Primary Care Practitioner?

Unlike a family doctor, ” primary care practitioner” (PCP) can indicate many different healthcare professionals. Some examples are:

  • Family medicine practitioner
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Physician assistant
  • Internist
  • Pediatrician
  • Geriatrician

Because there are so many types of PCPs, there are also multiple educational levels associated with each provider. For instance, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have masters-level academic training and are categorized as PCPs. Yet primary care physicians, who have usually attended four years of medical school and then served three years of residency training, are also PCPs. 

What Does a Primary Care Practitioner Do?

Your PCP may be the first person you call when a non-life-threatening health issue occurs. For example, if an acute event like an illness or a chronic condition like arthritis needs treatment, your PCP will be there to help. 

If your condition worsens or requires expertise beyond your PCP’s scope, they may refer you to a specialist for further treatment. They can also help coordinate your treatment across multiple providers. Acting as a point of contact to make your treatment as smooth as possible, PCPs are the hub that holds your care together. 

What is a Family Doctor?

Primary care practitioners have multiple levels of expertise and some are more specialized than others, but family doctors have a broad training that enables them to care for entire families — and for members of all ages. 

What Does a Family Doctor Do?

Family doctors possess a knowledge range and depth that allows them to treat families with a more holistic approach. They can care for infants and toddlers in their early-stage development, provide vaccines and physicals for children in school, and can also help seniors with geriatric care.

Because they can care for entire families, a family doctor will not only know male and female-related health issues but can also give informed counsel to their patients based on family history. That may include recommendations for genetic testing based on family history, or greater preparedness for medical conditions that have been seen in other family members. Such a family-centered approach also means that children will not have to find a new doctor when they become adults and that they may keep their current provider as long as they’re satisfied with their care.