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Who Are Primary Health Care Providers?

May 10, 2022

Written by
Chandranie Roberts, Primary Care Manager

​It can be quite confusing to understand the various levels of health care available and the role each practitioner plays in your health care journey. The information provided below is aimed at providing clarity regarding the role of each practitioner. 

What are primary care providers?

Every year, thousands of Canadians receive their Primary Health Care (PHC) services through a primary health care provider. PHC services play an important role in disease prevention and management. Their role is particularly important in the early stages of a disease. Primary care may also be explained as the range of first full medical contact and ongoing care for a patient whose symptoms, health problems or signs have not been diagnosed.

PHC services are provided by healthcare professionals like nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, family doctors, dietitians, physiotherapists and social workers. 

Primary care usually involves:

  • Routine care
  • Referrals to other levels of care (specialist) 
  • Care for urgent but minor or common health problems
  • Primary mental health care
  • Primary maternity and child care
  • Liaison with home care or rehabilitation services
  • Health promotion and disease prevention
  • Nutrition counselling
  • Preventive health
  • Diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, whether acute or chronic

Types of primary care providers 

Primary health care serves a dual function in the Canadian health care system:

  • Direct provision of first-contact services – This is generally provided by family physicians and nurse practitioners. However, services can also be provided by pharmacists and telephone advice lines.
  • Coordination function– To ensure continuity and ease of movement through the system. This ensures care remains integrated when a patient requires more specialized services (with a specialist or in a hospital).

Family Doctors

Also known as family physicians, these primary health care providers consult with a wide range of patients including infants, children, teenagers, adults and seniors. They have a broad knowledge of the body at every stage of life, which is useful for their varied patient base. Also, they know their patient’s home/family life, which can help in the diagnosis of several illnesses.

Your family doctor plays many important roles to improve health outcomes. These may include:

  • Encouraging patients to take preventive measures for their health (e.g. stopping smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet)
  • Promoting health initiatives to improve patient health
  • Screening patients for early signs of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancers
  • Educating patients about their health and providing relevant information about diseases and treatments
  • Counselling patients about their health and giving appropriate advice when applicable
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses based on the presenting symptoms and relevant guidelines

Nurse Practitioners

Not to be confused with a Registered Nurse (RN), the nurse practitioner (NP) has a Baccalaureate degree in nursing, an RN license, a graduate NP education and an NP license.

This additional education and nursing experience enable NPs to autonomously diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, prescribe medication, perform certain medical procedures, admit and discharge patients and provide referrals to other levels of care.

An estimated 3 million Canadians currently receive their primary care from an NP.

Nurse Practitioners- An Untapped Resource?

NP’s first appeared in Canada in the 1960s. Early on, NP’s provided care in rural and remote areas. By the 1970s, interest in the NP role increased and more education programs began. Today, NPs are an important part of the health-care system.

NPs provide timely access to high-quality, cost-effective care in a broad range of health care models. They work with, rather than replace, other health-care providers. They are part of a collaborative team that includes registered nurses, doctors, social workers and others. While seeing an NP, you can still see your family doctor or any other health-care provider. 

They are health-care professionals who treat the whole person, an approach that includes:

  • Addressing needs relating to a person’s physical and mental health
  • Gathering medical history
  • Focusing on how an illness affects a person’s life and family
  • Offering ways for a person to lead a healthy life
  • Teaching persons how to manage chronic illness

NP’s are also educators and researchers who can be consulted by other health-care team members.

NP’s work in a variety of health-care settings, such as:

  • Community care (community clinics, health-care centres, physicians’ offices and patients’ homes)
  • Long-term care (nursing homes)
  • Hospitals (outpatient clinics, emergency rooms and other patient areas)
  • NP-led clinics

NP’s, bring value to our health-care system. Studies about these benefits and patients’ experiences tell us that NPs:

  • Improve access to primary health care – They can provide patients with a decreased appointment wait time of 3 days and even same-day appointments for urgent care. 
  • Reduce pressures on the health-care system, through their practice and collaboration with other health care providers
  • Are valued and trusted by patients
  • Provide high-quality management of chronic illness (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure)

Our Community Health Centres (CHCs) are staffed by doctors and nurse practitioners. The team also has registered nurses, social workers, dietitians and foot care specialists. To make an appointment or for more information, please call us at:

  • Markham clinic: (416)-847-4101
  • Sheppard clinic: (416)-297-7490
  • Eglinton clinic: (416)- 640-7391