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What is primary care?

Primary care is a term used to refer to the services provided by general practitioners (GPs, or family doctors), practice and community nurses, dentists, opticians and community pharmacists. 

GP practices play a central role in diagnosing and treating illness, in helping people manage their health and in co-ordinating access to other health and care services. Using primary care services can help you to stay well and improve your health, as they often have a focus on preventing health problems, as well as treating them.

What role can primary care play in my overall health care?

Whilst you may currently receive much of your care from your HIV clinic, a GP is also likely to be important when it comes to your long-term health.

GPs are experienced in the prevention and management of a wide range of long-term conditions, including some that are common in people with HIV, especially as they get older (see Other long-term conditions and GP management). They also have an important role in helping people to avoid developing health problems, and can give advice and help on making changes to your lifestyle.

GP surgeries often provide a range of services, and are an important gateway to others. GPs can also prescribe drugs for a range of common issues; many of these drugs may not be available through your HIV clinic (see GP services).

In the past, HIV clinics have been the access point for other health services as well as HIV care. Some people with HIV may have felt that care from their HIV clinic removed any need to register with a GP.

Effective HIV treatment has transformed the outlook for people living with HIV. HIV is now considered a long-term, chronic medical condition that can be managed with the right treatment and care. Many people with HIV have a near-normal life expectancy. As people live longer, they may develop other health issues. Conditions associated with ageing are becoming more common in people with HIV and they are more likely to need long-term health care and support, including from primary care.

GPs should complement the care you receive from your HIV clinic, addressing non-HIV-related health problems. Your HIV clinic and your GP should work together to ensure you get the best possible care. Your GP will leave HIV treatment decisions to your HIV doctor, and your HIV clinic can discuss (with your permission) other aspects of your health with your GP.

In order to get the full benefit of GP services, it’s best for your GP and HIV clinic to liaise about your health. Therefore, it is important to disclose your HIV status to your GP, and to tell them what HIV and associated treatment your clinic is providing (see Making the most of your GP).

For non-HIV related health problems:

  • Your GP surgery may be more convenient than your clinic – open longer hours. GP surgeries have out-of-hours services if you need to see a doctor during the night or at a weekend, and they can arrange for you to go to hospital if necessary.
  • Your GP surgery may be closer to home or easier to reach – important if you are unwell.
  • GPs can do home visits if you are too ill to come to a clinic or surgery, and they may also do telephone consultations.
  • GPs can provide immediate prescriptions for a wide range of medication, including many that may not be available through your HIV clinic.
  • Many GP surgeries provide a range of health services, for prevention, screening and management of conditions. They often provide specialist clinics for long-term medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes.
  • GPs are able to refer you to a wide range of specialist care.

If you haven’t already registered with a GP

Many people have close ties with their HIV clinics. Being registered with a GP doesn’t mean you lose this relationship, as you will continue to visit your clinic for specialist HIV care.

Don’t wait until you are ill to find a GP. Registering with a GP as soon as possible makes good sense, as it enables you to get to know your practice and its services, and find a doctor you’re comfortable with. Seeing your GP when you are unwell or have a health query will enable them to build up a picture of your overall health and increases the likelihood that any emerging conditions are detected and treated early.

You may be concerned about the quality of care from a doctor who hasn’t had specialist training in, or experience of, treating people with HIV, or be worried about the possibility of being treated differently because of your HIV status. See Finding and choosing a GP for more information on finding a GP you feel comfortable with.

It’s important to know that GPs and all practice staff, like all healthcare professionals, are bound by strict legal standards of behaviour, including anti-discrimination legislation and confidentiality guidelines (see GP confidentiality for more information).

If you are already registered with a GP

You might already be registered with a GP, but rarely or never see them, assuming that you will be able to receive all the health monitoring, treatment and care you need – for any cause – via your HIV clinic.

However, this won’t always be the case. GPs provide health care, prescription drugs and related services that many HIV clinics can’t. You can find out more about the wide range of services your GP might offer later in this booklet.

And you don’t need to stay with a GP practice if you are unhappy with the standard of care. See How to change a GP for more information.

Other primary care services include:

Community (‘high street’) pharmacies. As well as dispensing prescription medications, pharmacists can offer advice and assistance about how to take medicines. They can also provide advice about how to lead a healthier lifestyle, contraception, and treatment for minor health problems. As well as the traditional chemist’s shop, community pharmacies can now be found in all sorts of settings, including supermarkets and even some large employers. The green cross sign identifies a pharmacy (see Pharmacies).

Opticians. An optician (sometimes called an optometrist) provides sight tests and checks the health of your eyes. They will provide you with a prescription if you require glasses or contact lenses. Your optician may refer you to your GP or for specialist treatment, if necessary. You may be eligible for help with the cost of eye tests, glasses or contact lenses (see Opticians).

Dental care. A dentist provides a number of services essential to maintain the health of your mouth, teeth and gums. You may be eligible for help with the cost of dental treatment (see Dental care).

HIV, GPs & other primary care

Published October 2012

Last reviewed October 2012

Next review October 2014

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.