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Which primary care doctor is right for you?

September 15, 2016 | UCI Health
Which primary care doctor is right for you?

Open enrollment time arrives and you stare at the list of primary care physician options, wondering which is the best choice.

Family medicine or internal medicine? Is your child too old for a pediatrician? Are you too young for a geriatrician?

Primary care physicians fall into four basic categories: internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics and geriatrics. Each has its own emphasis and category of patient that it serves. The doctor best for your needs will depend on your age and health status, plus the age and health needs of any of your dependents.

Before you select the one with the closest office, you may want to consider a few key factors to get the most value for your health care investment.

“An ideal primary care provider is someone you feel comfortable with and who is available when you need to be seen. You should feel secure in their abilities, because they are ultimately responsible for coordinating your care. That includes ensuring you stay healthy and, when you are sick or injured, making sure you get the care and medicine you need,” says Dr. Roxann Engle, medical director for the UCI Health Medical Group in Tustin.

Our “primary care primer” will help you navigate the differences among the four physician categories to help you confidently decide which will best serve you and your loved ones.

choose primary care doctor graphic

Download this chart: 'Which primary care doctor should I choose?' (PDF) ›

Internal medicine

Doctors in internal medicine, or internists, specialize in the diagnosis, treatment and care of adult patients. Their practice includes disease prevention, treatment of chronic conditions such as diabetes, and complex conditions involving multiple diseases or disorders. Many also have special areas of interest or training.

“If you have a specific health concern, look at the internist’s online bio to see if they have an interest in that area. If they do, they can manage more of your care without you having to see a specialist,” says Engle, who practices family medicine.

An internist’s bio can also provide clues as to whether a doctor is a good match for your age and health focus. “If a physician’s bio states that he specializes in geriatrics, that may be fine for an older patient, but may not be necessary for a 35-year-old healthy patient," says Engle.

Family medicine

Family medicine physicians have broad education and training in pediatrics, internal medicine, women’s health and mental health as well as many subspecialty areas, explains Dr. David Kilgore, vice chair of the UCI Health Department of Family Medicine. These doctors are dedicated to providing ongoing, personalized care for all members of the family, from newborns to elders, and are trained to care for a wide variety of common primary care conditions. 

Many will perform a variety of simple, in-office procedures such as suturing lacerations and doing pap smears and joint injections. They also will give referrals to medicine and surgical specialties when needed.   

Family medicine physicians place special emphasis on prevention and whole-person care by helping to educate you and your family about the many things you can do to improve your own health and wellness, Kilgore says.  

“Think of them as your family’s primary medical home — a one-stop-shop for high quality, broad-spectrum care for whole family.”


Pediatricians care for children from birth through 17. Along with diagnosing and treating illness and disease, they offer services for a growing child that include vaccinations, monitoring growth, and offering information about child safety and nutrition.

If you have a baby or very young children, a pediatrician can be a great primary care choice for your kids. If your middle-school child or high-schooler feels uncomfortable seeing a pediatrician, however, it may be time to switch to a family practitioner.

“A lot of times tweens and teenagers don’t want to see a pediatrician as they get older. A family practitioner is a nice transitional person who if comfortable taking care of children as well as adults,” Engle says.


Geriatricians coordinate care for older adults, primarily age 65 to 100. Most are internists or family practitioners credentialed in geriatrics, experienced in treating age-related health issues. They collaborate with other health professionals, such as neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and physical and speech therapists, to help patients retain function and quality of life.

“We specialize in disorders such as dementia, gait disorders and falls, osteoporosis, urinary incontinence, failure to thrive and psychiatric problems in older adults,” says UCI Health geriatrician Dr. Herbert Sier. “If we can cure something, great, but many chronic diseases can’t be cured. So we look at how to help a person function independently and, if they need assistance, help determine what kind of assistance they need.”

A geriatrician usually serves as a primary care provider for older adults with multiple chronic illnesses and individuals with cognitive or functional — mental or physical — deficits. However, a younger senior may wish to choose a geriatrician as a primary care doctor for preventive healthcare.

Ready to choose a doctor?

UCI Health has primary care physicians in convenient locations throughout Orange County. Read more about our primary care team and choose a doctor today ›

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Jalu Saktii
September 23, 2016

I love the chart you posted above; I didn't really understand the difference between pediatricians and family practitioners before. I'd imagine a family physician would have to be trained in all subjects of health because of how many types of patients they care for. My wife and I have been unsure what kind of physician to take our family to, but this helped us clear up the confusion in our minds.

February 28, 2017

I thought it was interesting to learn how internal medicine doctors differ from doctor's of other practices. The article mentions that these doctors specialize in disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. How does the schooling and education of doctor in internal medicine differ from other specialties such as family medicine?

Callum Palmer
December 19, 2017

There really are a lot of different primary care doctors to choose from and it is great that the article covers so many of them. After all, depending on your individual needs you may need a different kind of doctor to see you. For example, if your family is quite large and has wide range of ages within it, then you might need to see a family doctor whenever someone gets sick.

Callum Palmer
March 14, 2018

There is a lot that you have to look for when choosing a primary care provider. I think it is great that the article recommends considering family medicine as an option. After all, if you do have a family, then you are going to need to find a doctor for them as well.

James T. William
March 28, 2018

I think this article is a great learning source about how internal medicine doctors differ from doctors of other practices. What I believe is that a Primary Care Physician (PCP) is a healthcare professional who practices general medicine. Primary care physicians do the routine checkup and non-emergency medical checkups for your children. Consultations with your primary care doctor are meant to answer all the questions of patients and to learn about their complete health history and lifestyle.

Gloria Alcala
June 11, 2018


UCI Health
June 12, 2018

Hi Gloria, Please call 844-277-3824. Someone there will be able to answer your insurance questions!

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