Where to start

If you don't already have a health care provider in mind, ask for recommendations from friends or family members who have children. Find out why they like their health care provider and how that may apply to your situation. Your pregnancy health care provider may also be an excellent referral source.

If you've just moved to the area or you want to do some research on your own, the following resources may be helpful:

• Nearby general or pediatric hospitals

• Local medical societies

• Medical directories at your local library

• The local yellow pages

• The Internet. The following Web sites may help you find a medical care provider near you:

• American Academy of Pediatrics, "Pediatrician Referral Service"

www.aap.org/referral

• American Academy of Family Physicians, "Find a Family Doctor" www.familydoctor. org

• National Nurse Practitioner Directory, "Search for a Nurse Practitioner"

www.nurse.net/cgi-fin/start.cgi/referral/search.html Types of providers

Basically, three types of health care providers are qualified to care for children: family physicians, pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners.

Family physicians

Family physicians provide health care for people of all ages, including children. They are trained in various areas of medicine, including pediatrics. After going through medical school, they complete a three-year residency program. There, they gain experience in hospital and outpatient medical care. Family physicians take care of most medical problems. They can also refer your child for specialized care if the need arises.

A family physician can see your child from babyhood all the way through adulthood. Also, if the rest of your family sees the same physician, your doctor will gain an overall perspective of your family. That picture may be missed in other health care provider arrangements.

If you already have a family doctor you trust, ask whether he or she will see infants. Some don't see many infants. Others see children only after they have reached a certain age. If your family doctor isn't available for your baby, he or she may be able to suggest a suitable health care provider.

Pediatricians

Pediatricians specialize in the care of children from infancy through adolescence. After medical school, they go through a three-year residency program. There, they focus on preventive health care for children and other aspects of pediatrics. Some pediatricians receive further training in subspecialties such as allergies, infectious disease, cardiology and psychiatry.

Many parents choose pediatricians to care for their children's health because caring for children is what they are trained to do. A pediatrician can be particularly helpful if your child has a health condition or needs special medical attention.

Pediatric nurse practitioners

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with advanced training in a specialized area of medicine, such as pediatrics or family health. After nursing school, a nurse practitioner must go through a formal education program in his or her specialty field. Most have at least a master's degree. A typical program combines instruction in nursing theory with intense clinical experience under the supervision of a physician or experienced nurse practitioner. A pediatric nurse practitioner focuses on caring for infants, children and teens.

A pediatric nurse practitioner's main goal is to provide your child with primary care, such as maintaining your child's health, preventing disease and helping you and your child learn how to care for yourselves. Most pediatric nurse practitioners can prescribe medications and order medical tests. They work closely with physicians and medical specialists in hospitals, clinics or family practices and can call on them if a more complex health issue arises.

Some parents may feel uncomfortable choosing a pediatric nurse practitioner as a health care provider for their child because of what they see as a lack of training or expertise. But a pediatric nurse practitioner can be a good choice for primary care. In fact, a large study published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no significant differences in health outcomes or overall satisfaction rates between people cared for by nurse practitioners and people cared for by physicians. In addition, parents may find that nurse practitioners place a greater emphasis on answering questions and addressing any potential concerns. Their fees also tend to be less than those of physicians.

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