Pediatricians, practitioners, pysician extenders, clinics -- the world of medical care for babies can be confusing. And you'll want to sort it out, because your baby will get sick. The trick is to pick one healthcare professional who serves as the point person for all your baby's needs, and, fortunately, the process boils itself down pretty easily.
Family Practitioners and Pediatricians
Two different physician specialists care for babies -- family practitioners and pediatricians. Both types of physicians have completed a residency (extra training after graduation from medical school).
A family practitioner's training covers all areas of medicine, including adult medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, and surgery. A pediatrician's residency focuses entirely on pediatrics, and in their practice pediatricians specialize in the care of children and adolescents only.
Pediatricians have more training in childhood illness than any of the other providers. Compared with the family practitioner, the pediatrician has spent more time dealing with very ill children and with children who have special problems. Most pediatricians generally see their patients through the teenage years. Their staff and their waiting rooms are geared for children.
Family practitioners, on the other hand, can care for your entire family -- from the very young to the very old. Most family practitioners encourage this approach. They find it easier to treat an individual if they know the whole family.
Both pediatricians and family practitioners can take care of normal children equally well; however, if your child has special problems, a pediatrician is usually preferred. In addition, a family practitioner would refer any serious illnesses to a physician with more pediatric training.
Other Healthcare Providers
Other healthcare providers are also available for babies and children. These are nurse practitioners and physician assistants -- often collectively referred to as physician extenders.
Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who take one or two years of further training in physical examination, diagnosis, and prescribing medicines. Many work with physicians, although in some areas, they may practice by themselves.
Pediatric nurse practitioners are nurse practitioners who have taken additional training in clinical pediatrics. They specialize in well-child care and the treatment of common illnesses. They tend to be very capable in the areas of children's development and emotional needs and parenting concerns and often conduct classes in these areas. All nurse practitioners refer serious problems to physicians.
Physician assistants graduate from a two-year program in which they learn many of the same skills as the nurse practitioner. Many have a medical background, having worked as a laboratory technician, respiratory therapist, or other health care worker.
In most states, nurse practitioners and physician assistants perform the same functions; however, although a nurse practitioner may prescribe medications, a physician assistant cannot do so without a doctor's approval.
Physician extenders often work in clinics or groups, with physicians available for consultation and referral. Many private physicians also employ physician extenders who see children in the office for routine health care. Physician extenders often can spend more time talking with you, answering your questions, and teaching you what you need to know.
Settings for Child Care
These healthcare professionals work in different settings with their own advantages and disadvantages. Private care, such as from your own physician, tends to be more personalized, more convenient, and more expensive. Children's health clinics cost less to those with low incomes and usually offer good care, although you may experience more waiting and less continuity of care with the same practitioner. Children's health clinics are largely staffed by physicians taking their specialty training in family medicine or pediatrics.
Well-child clinics, such as those sponsored by the public health department, provide free or low-cost checkups and immunizations, but usually little care for the sick child. They are often staffed by physician extenders.
After looking into the types of care, decide which you want to investigate and make appointments to get to know the people involved. Ideally, try to do this at least a few weeks before your baby is due.
To pick a good doctor, you'll need to know what to ask during these appointments. The next page gives you lots of tips.