As you get older, you are likely to have more and more interactions with healthcare professionals, whether at doctors' offices, emergency rooms or urgent care clinics. While some of the faces may be familiar, you are bound to encounter many you do not know. It is easy to assume which ones are doctors and which ones are nurses, chances are you are you are wrong on at least some of your guesses. Given all the various and diverse roles in healthcare today, it is easy to mess up.

Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your health. So knowing who is providing your care, and their roles and responsibilities, is important. Most healthcare professionals will tell you directly, by introducing themselves with their names and titles, before any examinations or procedures begin. However, it can be overwhelming, because of how many you meet. If you are in a new setting and are unfamiliar with the staff, it might be helpful to take notes or ask a loved one to do so.
Hospitals and doctors' offices have lots of employees, from non-medical personnel to a slew of healthcare providers – each with different roles. Here is a quick overview of the professionals you are likely to encounter:

What are Paramedics?

– In an accident or emergency, paramedics are usually the first people encountered. They work primarily outside the hospital, as parts of emergency medical teams -- usually on ambulances. They are trained specifically in emergency medical care for people who are seriously ill or injured, and often deal with life-threatening situations. Their main responsibility is to stabilize patients and  possibly administer medication, while taking them to the emergency room.

What are Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT's)?

– EMT's are similar to paramedics. However, their scope of care is more limited. In an urgent medical situation, they can perform basic life support, assess vital signs and assist the paramedics. EMT's almost always work with paramedics.

What are Physicians (or Doctors)?

– The responsibilities of physicians are wide and varying. However, their primary role is to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. Doctors are typically the people who perform any type of physical examination or invasive procedure. They assess patients' medical histories, as a means of developing overall care plans. Doctors can order, perform and interpret diagnostic tests. In addition, they can prescribe medications. Finally, physicians serve as important resources in advising patients on preventative healthcare (including diet, exercise and lifestyle.) They may also consult with other physicians on diagnoses and treatments, or refer patients to more specialized doctors.

What are Resident Physicians?

– Resident physicians have completed medical school. They are in their final stage of becoming independently licensed physicians through hands-on training, under the supervision and guidance of seasoned physicians. Residencies typically lasts four years. Resident physicians typically work in hospitals and outpatient facilities.

What are Physician’s Assistants (PA's)?

– Physician’s assistants, often referred to as a PA's, work under the direct supervision of physicians. However, the duties, care limits and supervision requirements vary by state. PA's often diagnose and treat patients, when physicians are unavailable. However, their supervising physicians must always be on-site. You are likely to find PA's throughout the healthcare system, including doctors' offices, hospitals and urgent care clinics.

What are Nurse Practitioners (NP's)?

– Nurses with advanced degrees in medicine are known as nurse practitioners. They can diagnosis and manage many common medical conditions, including acute and chronic illnesses. Nurse practitioners can provide similar care to that of physicians and often works very closely with them. In some cases, they may serve as regular health care providers for their patients. In some states, NP's are also allowed to write prescriptions.

What are Registered Nurses (RN's)?

– Most often found in a hospital or outpatient facility, registered nurses are central to patients' healthcare teams and provide direct, hands-on care. One of their main responsibilities is to closely observe and monitor patients' conditions and convey relevant information to the physicians. RN's may also assist patients with basic needs, including personal hygiene, mobility and comfort. In addition, they perform assessments, administer medication and manage intravenous lines. Given their close working relationship with patients and their families, they may also serve as patient advocates – ensuring proper treatment. It is common for patients to interact with RN's more than anyone else in hospitals.

What are Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN's)?

– Typically found in assisted living settings or nursing homes, licensed nurse practitioners can provide basic nursing care. However, the scope of care is limited. They may sometimes perform more complex procedures, but only under the direction supervision of physicians or registered nurses.

What are Certified Nurse Assistants (CNA's)?

– Certified nurse assistants (or aides) can be found in many healthcare environments, but are typically in hospitals and nursing homes. Their role is to provide assistance with personal hygiene (including bathing and dressing), eating, exercising and overall daily living. Often times they obtain and record patients' vital signs. They are not allowed to administer medication, perform medical procedures or offer any medical advice.

Wrap Up

– It is important for patients to feel empowered and comfortable, but often times older patients feel the most lost and intimidated. If you feel uncomfortable with a healthcare provider, ask for a second opinion or replacement. If you are unsure about an individual’s credentials, clarify his or her roles and responsibilities. Being a patient can be overwhelming. Many patients are shy about questioning medical authorities, or are just trying to be as respectful and polite as possible. However, do not let your intuition go by the wayside. It is okay to ask questions if you are confused. Most healthcare professionals want to work closely with patients to provide the best possible care, and appreciate the questions. And, after all, who knows your body (and how it feels) better than you?

Written by Bryan K. Chaves
for Senior Directory