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Navigating the doctor labyrinth
By Dr. Peter Gott | Columnist
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Published: 1/18/2010 12:06 AM

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Q. I recently switched jobs and had to move to a new state. I also switched insurance to the one offered by the company I work for because it is more cost-efficient for me. My problem now is that I have to pick a new health care provider. I noticed that there are several types of providers: MD, DO, APRN, NP and PA. I know that an MD is a typical medical doctor, but I don't know what any of the others are.

A. Because of space restrictions, I will be able to provide only general overviews of what each professional is and how to decide which suits your needs.

First, the MD. Medical doctors are by far the most common type of healthcare professional. They include general practitioners, pediatricians, urologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, pulmonologists and other types of specialists. They all are able to diagnose, treat, correct and give advice and prescriptions for any human disease, deformity, pain, injury or other condition, both physical and mental. MDs tend to break the body down into parts and treat each separately.

Next is the DO, or doctor of osteopathy. They are similar to MDs, but rather than treating symptoms or specific illnesses, they treat the patient as an integrated whole. Osteopathy tends to emphasize the role and manipulation of the musculoskeletal system in order to treat diseases.

Both medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy have similar training. Both must attend four years of undergraduate school to receive a BS or BA degree. MDs then go on to standard medical school. DOs go to osteopathic school.

A physician's assistant (PA) is just as it sounds. These are people who are not physicians, but after appropriate education and training are able to work with an MD or DO to aid in diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive and health-maintenance services.

The final category is the APRN (advanced practice registered nurse). There are four major groups of the APRN, including nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists (CNS), certified nurse midwives (CNM) and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA).

These practitioners can work in nearly every setting a physician can. In some states, they are able to write prescriptions. Some work in clinics, while others work together with doctors as a healthcare team. All APRNs have training beyond the four-year nursing degree. Some may continue on to a doctorate in nursing. (This can be slightly confusing because the person can then be referred to as doctor because of his or her status as holding a Ph.D.; however, he or she is not a medical doctor.)

To get at the real heart of the matter, I believe any of these health professionals is capable of providing you with appropriate medical advice and treatment. Which type you choose to use is a personal decision, but it should not be your only concern. You will be best served by finding the person among those available with whom you feel the most comfortable. I suggest you ask your co-workers and friends their opinions of the available providers and then set up "get acquainted" visits with each of those who appeal to you. You will then be able to choose your primary-care provider.

© 2010, United Feature Syndicate