Why Have a Primary Care Physician for Your Child?

Don’t overlook the importance of your child’s primary care physician! An expert pediatrician from UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s shares why this matters.

As we are continually amazed by the health, energy and vitality of our children, it’s easy to forget the valuable role a primary care physician plays in maintaining that wonderful health and wellness. If your child never gets sick, why even take them to the doctor? By recognizing the role your child’s doctor plays in contributing to their healthy growth, it’s easy to see the value of your child’s primary care physician.

Allison Foster, MD, FAAP, Pediatrician with UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s. Photo credit: Jordan Porter-Woodruff/UChicago Medicine

“A primary care physician holds a very valuable position in your child’s life,” says Allison Foster, MD, FAAP, a Pediatrician with University of Chicago Medicine and Comer Children’s. She says that primary care physicians are health care professionals with specialized expertise in the general well-care of children from birth to age 21. “One of the most important roles of the primary care physician is to practice preventive care, which helps to keep children from getting sick in the first place.”

This preventative care includes routine checkups, growth and development assessments and immunizations against vaccine-preventable illnesses. “Additionally, when your child is sick with a fever, cough, rash or stomach pains, a primary care physician is usually the first person that will assess and treat your child,” Dr. Foster says.

There’s a lot to know about selecting a primary care physician for your child. We tapped into Dr. Foster’s expertise to help you make the best decisions about your child’s health care.

Primary care physician options

Physicians specialize in the care they offer, so it’s important to make sure your child’s health care is delivered by an expert with appropriate training and certification in caring for children. Different types of primary care physicians can include pediatricians, family physicians, “med-peds” physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, says Dr. Foster.

“Pediatricians are physicians with additional specialization in the care of babies, young kids and teens. Pediatricians are the only primary care physicians that have specialized training and board certification solely in the care of children. Pediatricians also provide lots of advice and guidance for the parenting of children in all aspects of their lives,” she explains. “But all primary care physicians that care for children have expert knowledge and training that allow them to appropriately care for kids.”

Family physicians, by contrast, are generally able to care for all family members, from babies to grandparents, and some even deliver babies and continue to provide care as they grow, Dr. Foster says. “Med-peds” physicians are typically board certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics to care for children and adults, with the exception of pregnant people.

Sometimes, the main providers to care for children in a doctor’s office are nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who usually have additional training and expertise in pediatrics, she says.

Important reasons to see a primary care physician

Even if your child is healthy and full of energy, it’s important to have regular checkups with their primary care physician so you can discover any potential problems as soon as possible.

“Regular checkups can help diagnose health concerns before they have become noticeable,” Dr. Foster explains. “Early detection of disease in otherwise healthy individuals generally results in much better outcomes than late detection of disease. This is especially true with developmental issues in toddlers and young children, and part of the reason why kids have frequent checkups when they are young.”

In addition, a pediatrician can help assess and manage mental and behavioral health concerns. “These concerns can affect your child’s home life and school,” says Dr. Foster. “Mental and behavioral health concerns can bring challenges to the family and school dynamic that make everyday routines quite challenging. Pediatricians can help diagnose and manage these issues.”

What to expect and how to choose

The stronger your relationship with your child’s primary care physician, the more you will feel supported in caring for your child. “Your child’s primary care physician will guide you through runny noses, sleep issues, growth and development as well as issues affecting you like postpartum depression and parenting anxiety,” Dr. Foster says. “Ideally, you feel confident in taking the advice that they give to you on preventive care, wellness and parenting.”

Don’t discount convenience factors, too. You’ll want this care provider to be close to home, have good availability for appointments — including urgent issues — and have “a stellar bedside manner and demeanor,” she adds.

“Your child’s primary care physician is likely to be part of your child’s life for years, so you want to make sure that you spend some time finding the right fit for your family,” says Dr. Foster. She recommends seeking word-of-mouth referrals from friends and family. Or do an online search for a provider close to home. “Most times, you can then find more general information about the physician from the practice website, including where they trained and whether they accept your insurance,” she says. “The final step is to schedule an appointment to meet the primary care physician to establish care. Some offices charge for these initial visits, so always check first before scheduling.”

During this visit, ask questions specific to your family’s needs. “If you feel comfortable and encouraged by the primary care physician to ask questions about things that you are unsure of regarding your child, you are in the right place! If you understand the care plan and why specific immunizations or medications were recommended for your child, you are in the right place! When you know, you know!” Dr. Foster says.

Nothing feels better than finding the right care provider for your child, so congratulate yourself on making the right choice.

“Parents want their children to grow appropriately, achieve developmental milestones on time and live long, healthy, productive lives. Pediatricians are solely dedicated to improving the quality of life for children, wanting to see them thrive and live better, healthier lives,” Dr. Foster says. “It is very important for all children to have a primary care provider and to see them regularly — from after birth all the way to adulthood.”

Content brought to you by UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s. Learn about UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s unique approach to the care of women and children. Discover UchicagoMedicine.org.

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