• Few People in the United States can Identify Primary Care Physicians

    One Pagers | May 15, 2004
    Mary Stock Keister, MD; Larry Green, MD; Norman Kahn, MD; Robert Phillips, MD, MSPH; Jessica McCann. MD; Ed Fryer, PhD

    Almost one decade after the Institute of Medicine defined primary care, only one-third of the American public is able to identify any of the medical specialties that provide it, and only 17% were able to accurately distinguish primary care physicians from medical or surgical specialists and non-physicians. This lack of discrimination compromises the goal of achieving primary care for all and merits immediate attention.

    When the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was charged to "provide guidance for augmenting and improving primary care as an essential component of an effective and efficient health care system" it discovered primary care was so poorly understood in the United States that the charge could not be undertaken without updating the definition of primary care. This definition, published in 1996, states: primary care is the provision of integrated, accessible health care services by clinicians who are accountable for addressing a large majority of personal health care needs, developing a sustained partnership with patients, and practicing in the context of family and community. The IOM recognized those physicians trained in family medicine, general internal medicine and general pediatrics, as well as many nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as key providers of primary care.

    The Future of Family Medicine Project (FFM), a collaborative effort by national family medicine organizations, commissioned Roper ASW to survey 1031 people between June 14 and July 1, 2002. The sample represents the general population of the U.S. with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, age and location. Respondents were asked to identify "all the different kinds of primary care physicians (PCPs) you can think of." Patients were permitted several responses. Half responded they "didn't know." Only 17% of the respondents were able to accurately identify at least one type of primary care physician without also misidentifying non-primary care specialists or non-physicians as primary care physicians.

    There is ample evidence that having a personal primary care physician is associated with improved health outcomes and that this is a relationship desired by people.1 The public deserves to be better informed about primary care and on whom they can rely to receive this care.


    1. Stock Keister MC, Green LA, Kahn NB, Phillips RL, McCann J, Fryer GE. What people want from their family physician. Graham Center One-Pager #26. Accessed online May 2004 at: http://www.graham-center.org/onepager26.xml.

    The information and opinions contained in research from the Graham Center do not necessarily reflect the views or the policy of the AAFP. 

    Published in American Family Physician, May 15, 2004. Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(10):2312. This series is coordinated by Sumi Sexton, MD, AFP Associate Medical Editor.