How to get started on choosing a health-care provider

There are many options from which to choose when it comes to medical care – primary care physicians, specialists, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants who work in conjunction with doctors.

To make the best choices for you and your family, it’s helpful to understand how health care practitioners are educated, trained, certified, and licensed to practice.

Becoming a physician generally requires four years of college and four years of medical school followed by residency training for three or more years in the doctor’s chosen specialty. Some physicians then also do what’s called a “fellowship” to receive even more training in a specific discipline.

Physicians may be either MDs or DOs. An MD is an allopathic physician and a DO is an osteopathic physician. Both attend four years of medical school where the training is very similar, except that osteopathic medical schools emphasize the structural integrity of the body. MDs and DOs attend the same residency training programs, so you may have a family physician, orthopedic surgeon, emergency physician, or most any other specialty doctor who is a DO.

Podiatrists (DPMs) are physicians who treat lower extremity problems, most often those affecting the foot and ankle. Podiatrists attend podiatric medical school and complete a three-year residency program to become licensed to practice. They treat patients in their offices and perform surgery at the hospital.

Frequently you’ll see the term “board certified” next to a physician’s name. Board certification is not required to practice medicine, but it means that a doctor has taken extra steps to demonstrate proficiency in his or her specialty. In order to be eligible to take a specialty board exam, a physician must have completed an approved residency and/or fellowship training program. Doctors are required to be either board certified or board eligible (meaning they are qualified to take the exams but have to practice for a certain period of time before doing so) to be on the staff at Southwest Memorial Hospital.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are an integral part of the health care delivery system in most communities, including here in Montezuma County. Nurse practitioners have either masters or doctoral degrees as well as advanced clinical training in their field. Physician assistants are graduates of accredited training programs and, like NPs, are licensed by the state to provide medical care to patients. NPs and PAs who work for Southwest Health System do so in coordination with licensed physicians. This team approach allows area clinics to accept more patients and provide the highest quality of care.

All providers whether MD, DO, DPM, NP, or PA must be licensed to practice medicine by the state. Additionally, they must engage in continuing medical education (CME) activities in order to maintain their medical license. This CME requirement helps ensure that provides stay up to date as science and technology changes and as new medical studies are released that might impact patient care decisions.

Just as important as knowing that your health-care provider is well-trained is being comfortable with their philosophy.

Ask your doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant about his or her approach when it comes to preventive care, recommending screening and diagnostic tests, prescribing medications, and the use of alternative and complementary medicine, for example.

These are practice style issues, and it’s up to you – the patient – to partner with your provider when making important decisions about your health. Communication is key, so always be honest with your health-care provider and expect the same in return.

(This article originally appeared in “Your Health, Your Hospital,” a publication of Southwest Health System.)

Educational opportunities

CPR: $25 (Kiva room at Southwest Memorial Hospital)

July 17, 8 a.m. to noon

July 29, 6 to10 p.m.

First Aid: $25 (Kiva room at Southwest Memorial Hospital)

Aug. 21, 6 to 9 p.m.

Life support: Pediatric Advanced Life Support, $150 (SWHM Annex building on Market Street)

Aug. 7-8, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days

Life support: Advanced Cardiac Life Support, $150 (SWHM Annex building on Market Street)

Sept. 10-11, 2 to 10 p.m. both days

Information: For more information or to register for any of these classes, contact Meghan Higman at 564-2160 or e-mail her at

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colo. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health-care provider.