Starting a health journey can be overwhelming, to say the least. From diets to exercise and self-care routines, it’s hard to know where to start. However, many diets and exercise equipment, gyms and studios warn prospective customers to always check with their doctor before starting something new. But how many of us actually follow that advice?
The pandemic caused many people to delay or avoid visits with their practitioners, and 25% of people don’t have a primary physician. If you want to get your health back on track, the first thing you should do is find or re-engage with a dedicated primary care provider (PCP).
We created this blog as a guide to help people understand what is a primary care provider, what you should look for in a provider, how to start a search for a new doctor, and when to visit them.
What Is a Primary Care Provider and Why Do They Matter?
One of the barriers to having a primary care provider for Americans is the lack of knowledge on the importance of the primary care relationship. Before uncovering why some folks don’t have a dedicated physician or don’t use their insurance, let’s discuss what exactly a PCP is and why they can make a big difference in your health.
A primary care provider, often referred to as a general practitioner, is a healthcare professional equipped with the knowledge to address everyday health such as infections, changes in health, and help you manage existing conditions. It’s important to note that not all providers need to be doctors; some physician’s assistants or nurses can provide the same care.
A primary care provider is a great starting point or "home base" for conversations about your health. At your first visit, they should ask plenty of questions about your family history of conditions so that you receive the proper care from the get-go. They can act as a quarterback for your care when you need more specialized care or screenings, and ensure any care provider you see is working off of current, accurate information about your health. PCPs also help you manage day-to-day health needs and are who you turn to when changes in your health arise that aren’t emergencies.
What You Should Look For in a Primary Care Provider
It may seem like there are infinite choices of doctors, but picking the right one for you can be difficult. Here are a few things to look for if you're on the hunt for a new provider.
A Holistic Approach
There are so many things to consider when looking for a primary care provider that it can quickly become overwhelming. But, having a PCP that’s focused on holistic care should be one of the elements to look for. Practitioners that take a holistic approach to health consider the patient’s entire history and current environment to get a full picture of their health to make proactive recommendations and diagnoses and treatment when issues arise. When physicians take a holistic approach, they can help catch health risks that may not have been noticed if they didn’t take into account the patient’s mental and emotional health.
Focus on Health Factors That are Important to You
If you have any chronic conditions or unique health needs, finding a provider with experience in those areas is important. If the PCP you’re interested in doesn’t have experience in an area you’re looking for, someone on their team might. It’s important to ask who the physician works closely with as they may have in-house staff members who specialize in an area important to you. Whether that team is in-house or available through a referral, a PCP that is well-connected in their health system is always helpful.
What do they offer?
When you’re considering what to look for in a PCP, make sure you take into account not only the quality of service they offer, but what services they offer.
One service you should consider is virtual care, which is growing in popularity and can have real benefits when it comes to taking care of your health and wellness. Whether it’s through phone calls, instant messaging or virtual visits, telehealth can be a great option for addressing minor conditions and illnesses.
Although virtual care is excellent to have on hand, it doesn’t replace visiting your doctor for annual or more urgent in-person check-ups. Plus, virtual visits aren’t always covered by insurance, so be sure to always understand what you may pay out of pocket for that service before you try it.
How to Search for a Primary Care Provider
1. Use your employer's benefits and/or insurance portal.
When searching for a primary care provider, always start by checking which providers are available within your insurance network. You can often find a search feature within your benefits or insurance portal with filters for specialties, reviews and ratings, and whether or not they are accepting new patients.
Picking an in-network PCP will help you save money on costs for visits and treatments. Preventive care services and screenings are often included without charge in most benefits plans if you go through an in-network provider.
2. Create a shortlist of in-network, nearby providers.
When doing your research, make a list of the top doctors in your network as well as any differentiators that may make them stand out from the rest. It’s a good idea to have at least three options in case your first choice isn’t accepting new patients. Don’t forget to do your own research. Search your top contenders and look for positive testimonials and reviews on their websites.
3. Ask for referrals from friends and family.
Another route to finding a quality provider is to ask around. If you have family and friends in the area, ask them who they see and if it might be a good fit for you.
4. Contact their offices.
Although you might not have immediate health concerns, don’t wait to schedule an appointment with your top choice. Contact the offices of the providers you're most interested in. Ask them questions that are important to you. Here are a few to start with:
- Is the doctor accepting new patients?
- If you need to be admitted to a hospital, what hospitals does the doctor use?
- Would your doctor take care of you in the hospital?
- What are the office hours (when you can see the doctor and speak to office staff)?
- Can you contact the doctor by email?
- Which doctors cover for the doctor if he or she is not available?
- How long does it take to get a routine appointment?
- Does the office give medical advice over the phone?
Remember, scheduling an appointment will be considered a medical appointment and will be billed to your insurance. But the first visit will help you determine if this provider is right for you, as you can learn a lot about the doctor in the way they and their office staff interact with you.
When to Visit Your Primary Care Provider
Finding a PCP is a great first step on your wellness journey. Now comes the more difficult part of actually going to see them. When you first choose a provider, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with them right away, as schedules for preventive care and well visits book up quickly.
Remember, just because you had one appointment with a provider doesn't mean you're locked in for life. Following the appointment, ask yourself:
- Did the doctor listen to me, ask questions and answer my questions?
- Did the doctor show respect for me? Did I feel comfortable?
- Did the doctor address the medical problem I came with?
Based on your homework and your appointment, hopefully, you’ve found a provider you feel you can trust and who can meet the general medical needs of you and your family. If not, schedule your next annual appointment with your next-best candidate.
What To Expect From a Visit With a Primary Care Provider
If it’s been over a year since your last check-up, most providers will suggest an annual health screening. Screenings and lab work help you and your doctor get an understanding of your current health. Talking over health risks and family history with your doctor is a great place to start and health screenings allow you to do just that.
Outside of your yearly check-in, make sure that you are informing your doctor of any changes to your health, environment and social circumstances so that they can make helpful recommendations. If you’re considering doing any of these appointments virtually, make sure you check out this resource where we detail when you should visit your PCP in person, and when it’s okay to take the appointment virtually.
Why Is the Primary Care Provider Relationship Important?
Primary care can do more than you think. Regularly visiting your primary care provider helps prevent illness and can lower death rates. Research shows that regardless of health risks, U.S. adults who visit a PCP rather than a specialist for primary care had lower mortality rates.
Learn more about the benefits of having a primary care provider in our blog, Why The Relationship With A Primary Care Physician Matters.