What is a doctor?

What is a doctor? What kind of doctors are there? Which one should you go to?

What is a doctor?


This page can help you understand which kind of doctor or medical service to visit. Who you see for help will depend on your health issue.

What is a doctor?
A doctor is a person who is trained to treat sick people. In the United States, there are many kinds of doctors and other medical providers – people who help you when you are sick or injured.

What kind of doctors are there?
Below we will explain three types of medical providers you may need:

  • Primary care providers
  • Specialists
  • Emergency medical services

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 US), a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. The relationship with your PCP may last many years. 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.

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 the RCO database for healthcare providers in your city.

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 are available for free. Look here for information about what screenings are covered by most health plans.


Your primary care provider may send you to a specialist to continue your care 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 the doctor refers you for further 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. Learn more about the different types of specialists you might encounter in the US.

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.

Emergency medical care

If you or someone in your family becomes sick late in the day or over the weekend, or if there is a severe or life-threatening problem that requires immediate care, making an appointment with your PCP may not be possible. In these cases, here are the types of places you can go to seek care:

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 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:

  • Infant or baby has a very high fever on the weekend
  • Wife is going into labor
  • Husband has broken his leg

If 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 United States has a well-developed system of emergency medical services for responding to medical emergencies. Response includes care by trained medical responders and transportation by ambulance to a hospital emergency department.  Local communities usually run their own emergency medical services, sometimes working with or police and firefighting departments, and sometimes using hospitals or private companies.

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