With more than 160 specialties and subspecialties available in the U.S., rightfully holding high esteem in the medical field, it’s also crucial to recognize the often unsung heroes of healthcare — primary care physicians. These physicians are pivotal in providing comprehensive care to patients of all ages. Moreover, they serve as the initial contact for many patients, provide services for acute and chronic conditions, and provide wellness and prevention screenings. 

So, how to become a primary care physician?

Follow along as we provide insight into the world of primary care physicians, highlight their significant role in healthcare, and discuss the journey you must undertake to join the ranks of these crucial healthcare providers. 

What Is a Primary Care Physician?

Primary care physicians are medical doctors who serve as a patient’s first point of contact within the healthcare system. They play a vital role in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of a broad array of illnesses in the general population. Primary care physicians can provide comprehensive care, meaning they can address chronic conditions like diabetes and acute problems such as bronchitis, allergic reactions, or colds. Moreover, they play a pivotal role in early disease detection, such as breast, cervical, prostate, and colorectal cancers. They also collaborate with specialists and build long-term relationships with their patients.  

What Does a Primary Care Physician Do?

Primary care physicians can provide care in various settings, such as clinics, hospitals, long-term care facilities, private or group practices, and outpatient and inpatient hospital settings. They’re crucial in providing healthcare to people of all ages and helping prevent widespread health crises. Their scope of practice includes:

  • Conducting immunizations, screening tests, health-risk assessments, routine check-ups, and patient education on maintaining a healthy lifestyle; 
  • Making referrals to specialists for further examinations and treatments; 
  • Providing acute illness and injury care by performing lab tests, prescribing medications, conducting EKGs, providing wound care, etc.; 
  • Diagnosing and providing treatment for various health issues, such as diabetes, hypertension, common cold, flu, etc. 
What Does a Primary Care Physician Do_

Steps to Become a Primary Care Physician

The journey to becoming a primary care physician is a rigorous one, taking at least 11 years after high school. Here are the five steps you need to take to become one. 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s degree

The first milestone in your journey is earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. There is no requirement on what you should major in as long as you can complete the prerequisite courses for medical school, such as biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and English. However, the importance of a science-related degree cannot be overstated. A science-related degree will provide you with the foundational knowledge of biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry, etc., necessary for success in medical school. If you’re determined, you want to become a physician, you can also pursue a pre-medical program to prepare for medical school. To fortify your knowledge in the natural sciences and prepare for medical school, consider our one-semester Prior Prep Program. 

2. Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) 

Next, you must take the MCAT exam as part of the medical school admissions process. MCAT is a standardized computer-based examination that assesses four different areas of knowledge. The four sections of MCAT are:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems;
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems;
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior;
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. 

The MCAT is an essential step in the admissions process because it showcases that you possess the necessary knowledge and skills to keep up with the rigorous medical school curriculum. Moreover, it underscores your potential performance in medical school and the USMLE examination. 

3. Attend medical school

Attending four years of medical school is a paramount step in your journey to becoming a primary care physician. One of the first decisions you’ll have to make as a primary care physician is whether you want to become a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathy (D.O.). While both medical schools provide the basics of diagnosis, pharmacology, disease management, and other crucial medical skills, osteopathic medical schools teach medicine from a holistic perspective. This means you’ll learn how to treat the patient as a whole—not just symptoms or injuries.

Most medical schools follow a similar structure, dividing their training into pre-clinical and clinical phases. The pre-clinical phase includes the first two years of medical school, during which you’ll learn about basic medical concepts, human anatomy, diseases, and treatment concepts. During the clinical phase of the last two years of medical school, you’ll gain hands-on experience with patients in various medical specialties. 

4. Complete a residency program

Following medical school, you must complete a medical residency with the required internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics, and general surgery rotations. Residency training provides hands-on clinical experience and specialized primary care knowledge, usually taking three years to complete. During this training period, you’ll learn how to diagnose, provide treatment for, and prevent a wide range of illnesses and conditions in people of all ages. 

5. Obtain licensing and certification

The final step to becoming a primary care physician is gaining state licensure, which is critical for practicing medicine as a primary care physician. To obtain state licensure, you must successfully complete all three stages of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for M.D.s or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) for D.O.s. The exam order for USMLE and COMLEX-USA is as follows:

  • Step 1: Usually taken at the end of the second year of medical school;
  • Step 2: Usually taken in the fourth year of medical school;
  • Step 3: Usually taken after the first year of residency. 

Although it’s not required, after completing residency, you can specialize and become board-certified in a field of primary care, such as pediatrics, family medicine, geriatrics, or internal medicine. 

Skills and Competencies

Here are the essential skills and competencies you need to succeed as a primary care physician:

Clinical skills

Working in primary care means you’ll encounter a wide range of medical conditions. Therefore, you must possess excellent clinical skills to diagnose and treat them. Some of these clinical skills include:

  • Physical examination;
  • Diagnostic reasoning;
  • Clinical decision-making;
  • Case management;
  • Collaboration;
  • Administering medication;
  • Record-keeping;
  • Computer literacy;
  • Emergency care. 

Communication skills

As a primary care physician, you’ll spend a large portion of your day interacting with patients and other healthcare professionals. Therefore, excellent communication skills are indispensable. You must be able to explain complex medical conditions and treatments clearly and utilize active listening to address patient concerns. Communication skills are also crucial for building trust and rapport with patients and treating them with empathy and compassion. 

Cultural competency

A key responsibility of primary care physicians is delivering care to a wide range of patients. This also includes caring for patients of different ages and backgrounds. Therefore, as a primary care physician, you must understand and respect how cultural background may influence the patient’s perspective on health. So, you must address their concerns without judgment or bias. By possessing cultural competency, you’ll be able to foster trust and rapport with patients, facilitating their active participation in their healthcare decisions and adhering to treatment plans. 

Job Outlook and Career Opportunities

The BLS reports a 3% increase in employment for all physicians, with about 24,200 openings projected each year over the decade. However, due to an estimated shortage of between 20,200 and 40,400 primary care physicians by 2036, you can expect a higher increase in employment for primary care physicians. 

Primary care isn’t only in demand but offers many career opportunities due to innovations in the field. As technology developed, so did the ability of doctors to provide care via telemedicine. As a primary care physician, a growing career option is becoming a telemedicine physician. As one, you’ll be able to see patients from anywhere with an internet connection. Moreover, you can benefit from the high compensation of $278,477. Another emerging trend in primary care is interdisciplinary teams, which is an approach to organizing health care for patients across several disciplines to address multiple physical and psychological needs. These teams consist of primary care physicians, specialists, nursing staff, physical therapists, etc., who actively coordinate to work toward shared treatment goals. 

Conclusion

Although the road to becoming a primary care physician may seem lengthy and laborious, it is worth it. By becoming one, you can help your patients manage chronic illnesses, provide comprehensive care, and promote overall well-being. Moreover, you’ll get the chance to specialize in a field of primary care such as pediatrics, family medicine, internal medicine, or geriatrics. 

Therefore, if you want to make a difference in the community and help patients improve their quality of life, consider pursuing primary care as a rewarding career path. As you take the first steps in your journey, check out our AS in Health Sciences and get on the M.D. track right after high school. 

FAQ

Can primary care physicians prescribe medication?

Yes, primary care physicians can prescribe medication for numerous conditions. They can prescribe antidepressants, antibiotics, birth control, etc. 

What are the benefits of choosing primary care as a medical specialty?

Some benefits of choosing primary care as a medical specialty include the job outlook, flexible schedule, and working with a diverse patient population. Moreover, being a primary care physician allows you to help patients manage and prevent health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and more. 

Can primary care physicians work in interdisciplinary care teams?

Yes, primary care physicians can work in interdisciplinary care teams. These teams typically consist of primary care physicians, nursing staff, and specialists. 

What are the benefits of working in interdisciplinary care teams?

Interdisciplinary teams provide many benefits to patients and healthcare professionals. Some advantages of working in an interdisciplinary team include improved care and outcomes, fewer errors, improved efficiency, and faster treatment.