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A Guide to Health Care Providers: Who They Are and What They Do


You are likely to meet many different kinds of care providers during treatment and recovery from conditions affecting your physical and emotional health. They include doctors, nurses, and therapists. This guide can help you understand who they are and what they do.

Medical specialists and surgeons

Medical doctors who treat specific kinds of conditions and injuries are called "specialists." Some of these specialists may also perform surgery:

  • Internists specialize in diagnosis and medical treatment of adults.
  • Anesthesiologists provide and monitor anesthetics (agents that make sure a patient doesn't feel pain during medical procedures such as surgery).
  • Cardiologists specialize in treatment of the heart and may do special procedures to correct some heart problems but refer most surgery to cardiac surgeons.
  • Dermatologists specialize in treatment of the skin, including burns and skin infections.
  • Endocrinologists specialize in diseases of glands (e.g., the thyroid gland) and often treat diabetes.
  • Gastroenterologists specialize in conditions involving the digestive tract, including stomach and bowels.
  • Gynecologists specialize in the female reproductive system.
  • Neurologists specialize in the neurological system, especially the brain and nerves.
  • Oncologists specialize in tumors and cancer.
  • Ophthalmologists specialize in treatment of the eyes.
  • Orthopedists specialize in problems with bones, joints, and muscles.
  • Otolaryngologists specialize in ear, nose, and throat conditions.
  • Pathologists identify infectious agents and examine specimens in order to diagnose disease.
  • Physiatrists specialize in rehabilitation medicine (also called physical medicine) for life-changing injuries.
  • Plastic surgeons specialize in the repair and reconstruction of parts of the body.
  • Podiatrists specialize in conditions of the foot.
  • Radiologists specialize in administering, diagnosing, and treating with X-rays and other imaging technology, including CAT scans and MRIs.
  • Urologists specialize in the urinary system, including bladder and kidneys, and the male reproductive system.

Attending physicians, residents, and interns

An attending physician has completed all medical training and has received "privileges" — that is, he or she is allowed to practice medicine at a hospital. An attending physician also supervises residents.

A resident is in his or her second year after medical school and is continuing to train within a hospital in a specialty area such as surgery, neurology, or psychiatry.

An intern has completed medical school, received a medical doctorate, and is continuing to study in a hospital for his or her first year after medical school. An intern can practice medicine only within the hospital.

Nurses, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants

Nurses provide close care to patients. They monitor the patient's condition and carry out the treatment plan. Like doctors, nurses can specialize in certain areas. For example, some nurses work primarily with patients in intensive care, or with patients recovering from surgery. Registered nurses have more training than practical nurses.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants perform routine physician procedures and prescribe medications under the supervision of a physician.

Therapists

Therapists help injured service members in many ways. For example:

  • Auditory therapists work with patients who need to improve their hearing, often by teaching the best use of hearing aids.
  • Occupational therapists (also called "OTs") work with patients to help them gain independence in all parts of life, including bathing, eating, cooking, and using adaptive devices such as artificial limbs.
  • Physical therapists (also called "PTs") teach patients how to regain strength and mobility by doing exercises and using their bodies properly.
  • Speech therapists work to help service members who need to improve their speech, often after brain injury or stroke.

Mental health care providers

Several kinds of providers can help service members with emotional or mental health problems, such as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

  • Psychologists counsel people with emotional or mental health problems. A psychologist may have a Ph.D. and be called "doctor" but is not a medical doctor and cannot prescribe medications.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in treating mental and emotional problems and counseling patients and who may prescribe medications.
  • Social workers counsel people about emotional problems and guide them to other resources that can help. A social worker usually has a master's degree in social work.
  • Mental health counselors counsel people with mental health or emotional problems. A mental health counselor usually has a graduate degree in psychology or education but is not a medical doctor.

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