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In this article:

  • Patients today work more closely than ever with a range of different health care providers.
  • Health care providers include doctors, nurses, and many others who deliver services directly to patients. Each type has distinct training and education.
  • Knowing the different types of healthcare providers empowers patients to establish better relationships with their health care team.
  • Learning how to find and communicate with healthcare providers is an important step for receiving tailored, patient-centered care.

One of the most important trends in medicine is the growth of patient-centered care. Core tenets of patient-centered care include making you as the patient feel respected, informed, and empowered in medical decision-making.

In order to be engaged in this way, you need to know who is providing your care. While it’s common to immediately think of “going to the doctor” for health concerns, it’s likely that you receive important services from several types of health professionals.

The term health care provider describes any professional that delivers health services to patients. Doctors, physician assistants, nurses, psychologists, health educators, and physical therapists are just a few examples of common health care providers.

Patients frequently interact with multiple health care providers that are part of their health care team. Each type of health care provider has distinct training and experience, and the extensive terminology to describe them can leave you wondering:

  • What is a health care provider?
  • What are the different types of health care providers?
  • Who is on my health care team and what is their training and experience?
  • How do I find a high-quality health care provider?

Understanding the answers to these questions can help you build stronger relationships with your health care providers and enable you to actively participate in medical care that is adapted to your needs. You can learn to improve communication with your health care providers when you understand their roles and unique perspectives. This can empower you to ask them questions based on patient-centered care, such as:

  • How do I help ensure my best possible care?
  • How do I express my health care preferences, values and priorities?
  • How do we incorporate those into my health care plan to help guide medical decisions?
  • How do I provide feedback about my health care experiences?

The Rise of Patient-Centered Care

The traditional model of medical care in the United States has been driven by ideas like “doctor’s orders” and “doctor knows best.” In this approach, medical doctors gathered information and made decisions. In many cases, patients were not deeply informed or involved in determining the course of their care.

Both doctors and patients have started to move away from the traditional model and toward patient-centered care. Many factors are driving this shift including an emphasis on the ethics of treating each patient as worthy of respect and capable of participating in their care.

Not surprisingly, patient-centered medicine improves patient satisfaction, and researchers have also found that it can enhance health outcomes.

In practice, patient-centered care enables discussions between patients and their health care providers about important topics such as:

  • Whether to have health screening tests
  • The benefits and risks of treatment options
  • How your values and priorities can shape medical choices.

Informed decision-making is essential to patient-centered care, and patients today have access to more resources than ever before to learn about medical conditions and procedures. You can often see the lab report from a test as soon as it is available and sometimes even before your doctor. In addition, many laboratories and testing companies offer a growing slate of at-home tests that can be ordered and taken without having to consult with a doctor.

While these changes give patients greater control over health decisions, a health care provider remains an essential resource. As trained and licensed professionals, health care providers play an integral role in explaining key details about all aspects of your medical care, including testing.

A health care provider can help prescribe the most appropriate tests and deliver critical guidance about the pros and cons of your test options. They can interpret test results in a way that considers your overall health and medical history and, in that process, address whether follow-up testing is necessary.

A strong relationship between you and your health care providers is a key foundation of effective patient-centered care. To develop these relationships, it is important to understand the different kinds of healthcare providers and how you can most effectively communicate and work collaboratively with them.

Who is a Health Care Provider?

A health care provider is a professional who works with you to attend to your health needs. Health care providers have different types of education, training, and specialties. They work in many settings including medical offices, hospitals, and health clinics.

Technically, the term doctor refers only to a physician with a certain type of degree and certification. However, in everyday language, some people may use the term “doctor” generically to refer to many health care providers who they work with directly, or say “doctor’s office” when referring to their health care team.

Even so, the term “health care provider” is becoming more common and refers to doctors, nurses, physician assistants, therapists for physical and mental health, and many others who are active in supporting your health and wellness.

It can be helpful to remember that each health care provider has a specific title that is determined by their training and education. This affects the type of care that they deliver and their role on your overall health care team. If you are unsure of your health care provider’s training or role, be sure to ask.

Who’s Who on Your Health Care Team

Your health care team is made up of all the different providers who are involved in your care. The types of health care providers on your health care team depends on your health conditions. It may also change over time as your individual needs evolve.

Coordination among the people on your health care team is critical, especially for complex or multifaceted health issues that affect different systems of the body. For example, a condition like diabetes is linked to metabolism, cardiovascular health, vision, wound healing, nutrition, dental health, and other aspects of health. Teamwork by health care providers with expertise in these areas can meaningfully contribute to effective patient-centered care.

In addition, it’s important to foster a strong working relationship with each member of your health care team. As a first step, you can learn who’s who, and the following sections introduce the different types of health care providers who may be a part of your health care team.

Primary care provider

A primary care provider, sometimes called a PCP, serves as the first line in your medical care. Primary care providers can conduct routine check-ups, resolve many common issues, prescribe medications, recommend and order tests, and refer you to specialists.

A primary care provider may be a doctor. Doctors who commonly work in primary care may be called generalists. Others focus mainly on older adults (geriatricians), children (pediatricians), or adults and children (family doctors). Some doctors who are specialists, such as obstetrician/gynecologists (OB/GYNs) that focus on women’s health, can ALSO provide primary care services.

Physician assistants and certain types of nurses known as nurse practitioners (NPs) can provide primary care services and may be the main primary care provider for many patients.

Some medical offices offer team-based primary care, which means that you may not always see the same PCP when you schedule an appointment. Instead, each health care provider in the office is empowered to meet with you and review your situation. In this way, you may be able to schedule appointments more quickly and get to know more than one primary care provider.

Types of doctors

The term doctor or physician refers to someone who has a degree as a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.).

To become an M.D. or D.O., a person must graduate from an approved medical school and conduct training and testing to become licensed by their state. A doctor of osteopathic medicine undergoes additional hours of training in hands-on therapies and holistic medicine.

Doctors can become certified as specialists in certain areas of medicine. This requires extra years of training and passing additional tests to become certified. There are many types of medical specialists including those listed in the following table.

Some doctors may have multiple specialties or subspecialties. For example, a surgical oncologist does operations focused on cancer while a medical oncologist usually prescribes drugs to treat cancer. Certain doctors may focus on particular diseases within a broader category.

Because there are many types of specialists, it’s not uncommon to see more than one doctor. Doctors with distinct training and experience can work together to inform and coordinate your care.

For your own notes, you may want to write down the name of any doctor that you meet with as well as their specialty and contact information. This can help you keep track of the doctors involved in your health care team.

Physician assistants

A physician assistant (PA) works under the direction of a doctor to provide a range of services, including in primary care and many specialty areas. PAs may be involved in nearly all aspects of care including ordering and interpreting tests and prescribing medications for many  health conditions.

PAs have extensive education and training and are regulated through state licensing rules and national certification programs. PAs may work one-on-one with patients but are supervised by doctors with whom they coordinate care.

Types of nurses

Nurses are an integral component of your health care team. There are several kinds of nurses that have different levels of education and training, which shapes the scope of care that they can provide. Like doctors and PAs, nurses provide services in primary care and in many medical specialties.

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have education at or above the Masters level and are certified to perform key functions like assessing patients, diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, and prescribing medications. Types of APRNs include:

  • Nurse practitioner (NP): Nurse practitioners deliver care directly to patients in many health care settings and are the most common type of APRN. Certified nurse practitioners (CNPs) meet certification and continuing education requirements set by national organizations.
  • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS): A clinical nurse specialist undergoes additional training to focus on a specialty such as critical care, pediatrics, or a specific disease.
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs): These nurses are authorized to administer anesthesia in a wide range of medical settings.
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM): CNMs have special training to provide women’s health services including prenatal care, labor and delivery, and postnatal care. CNMs can also be involved in family planning and various other reproductive health issues.

Other types of nurses may also be part of your health care team. These nurses are not authorized to perform as many services as APRNs, but they work with doctors and other nurses to deliver a range of services. These types of nurses include:

  • Registered nurse (RN): RNs have completed a nursing education program, passed exams, and received a license from their state to aid in multiple aspects of patient care.
  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN): LPNs are caregivers that have met training requirements to earn state licensing.

Depending on the situation, different types of nurses may work together and alongside doctors, physician assistants, and other health care providers to best meet the needs of your situation.

Other health care providers

Many other kinds of health care providers can contribute to your experience as a patient. Examples of these health care providers include:

  • Pharmacists who fill prescriptions and provide information about medications
  • Dentists who offer care related to oral health including the teeth and gums
  • Genetic counselors who provide information about DNA testing and hereditary conditions
  • Diabetes care and education specialists who help navigate the challenges of managing diabetes
  • Registered dieticians who can offer tailored information about nutrition
  • Physical or occupational therapists who help restore physical functions and abilities and develop exercise programs
  • Phlebotomists who draw blood for testing and other procedures
  • Acupuncturists who administer therapy with acupuncture
  • Clinical social workers who work to address social and mental health issues that influence medical care
  • Naturopathic practitioners who offer services using holistic or integrative medicine
  • Nursing assistants who often help patients with daily care and basic tasks, including personal hygiene
  • Medical assistants who may interact with patients and handle administrative duties

This is far from a comprehensive list, but it reflects the diversity of roles that health care providers can play on your health care team. These health professionals don’t have the same experience and authority as doctors or nurses, but they go through education and training programs. Many have specific certifications or licenses to deliver patient care.

Test Results and Your Health Care Team

Medical testing is normally ordered by a doctor, physician assistant, or advanced practice registered nurse. In many cases, initial testing is prescribed by a primary care provider. Additional follow-up testing may be overseen by your PCP or a specialist.

Different people on your health care team may need to consult with you about your test results and what they mean for you. Results will often be reviewed with you by the health care provider who ordered the test.

Several members of your health care team may discuss the results with one another before explaining their significance to you. For instance, your doctor may consult with a pathologist or laboratory specialist to get a detailed explanation of the results of your blood tests or biopsies.

In the process, your health care team can help you understand your medical situation and potential next steps for diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of your condition. Your test results offer essential information that can help your health care providers try to prevent illnesses or disease progression, get you back to health and keep you in health.

Talking to your Health Care Provider About Your Tests

It is normal to have questions about testing, so you should feel comfortable talking with your health care providers about the tests that they recommend and the results of those tests.

Basic questions that may be helpful in these conversations include:

  • What tests do you recommend and why?
  • What can we learn from the test results?
  • Are any of my test results abnormal? If so, what does that mean?
  • Do you recommend any follow-up tests?
  • Is a record of my test results available for other members of my health care team to see?

Talking to your health care provider about at-home tests

At-home testing is becoming more common, and some health care providers request that patients perform at-home testing as part of their care. Examples include tests to monitor diabetes or blood-thinning therapy. Information from these tests are typically discussed during scheduled checkups.

If you are considering ordering your own at-home tests or have already taken an at-home test, you should provide that information to your PCP or another health care provider. However, be aware that health care providers may not have confidence in some at-home tests.

They may suggest repeating testing in the laboratory in order to confirm any results of an at-home test, or order additional laboratory testing. They may require these steps before recommending a course of action or making any medical decisions.

It is important to remember that at-home tests are not designed to replace care provided by your health care team. At-home testing can be most helpful when it is done in consultation with your PCP or other health care providers who can help explain the pros and cons of testing and review your test results.

Finding a Health Care Provider

If you are having an immediate or severe health problem, you should go to an emergency room or an urgent care clinic as soon as possible. At these locations, you can be seen by a doctor or nurse who can quickly evaluate your symptoms.

For other health concerns, there are several ways to find a high-quality health care provider or a medical specialist:

Remember that you can change health care providers if you are having difficulties with communication or other aspects of your care. It may take meeting with more than one health care provider to find someone who is the best match for your needs and communication style. Even if you are comfortable with your current health care provider, there may be instances when it is worthwhile to seek a second opinion.

If you decide to see a different health care provider, it can be helpful to keep a copy of your important medical records so that all of your health information is organized and can be shared with all the members of your health care team.


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