When it comes to your health, relationships really matter. But about one in four Americans don't have a personal doctor or primary care provider. The numbers are even higher for minority groups and younger adults. Here's my case for finding a primary provider of your own, and stat.
What is a primary care provider (PCP)?
A PCP is the quarterback of your care — the hub for everything related to your health. That means your PCP becomes an expert in you and your health goals, helping you navigate the system, translating test results, and working with specialists to make sure your care is on track. Your PCP is your partner and biggest health advocate. Simply put, they make sure you get better, more personalized care.
But what if I’m pretty healthy?
If you’re healthy, you might reasonably see different practitioners over time for acute needs, like a cold or an ankle injury. But it’s beneficial for even the healthiest people to build a relationship with a PCP.
Transactional health care works until it doesn’t. Whether it’s due to an unexpected injury or just getting older, everyone will eventually need more medical help.
It happens to all of us! At age 30, I was healthy and active, but after experiencing joint pain, I was diagnosed with a congenital hip condition that required invasive surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. At the time, as a physician-in-training myself, I thought: I can be my own primary care doctor.
Wrong. I had a world-class surgeon, an exceptional physical therapist, supportive friends and family, and, of course, a massive advantage in my medical training. But what I needed was an objective, knowledgeable third party to help me weigh the positives and negatives of having the procedure at all, and someone to help with me with what came next — several years of complications, a revision procedure, and ongoing pain and rehab. It took me a while to realize I didn’t need to manage all of that trial and error alone.
If even those of us who are clinicians benefit from having a medical expert on our team, surely you would, too. With a PCP, you have a partner you already know and trust. It eases your inevitable transition into more hands-on care, rather than leaving you to make an important decision about the right provider in the middle of a health crisis.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While I don't believe that everyone needs a comprehensive physical exam every year, it's important to get preventive care. That includes clinically appropriate screening tests and immunizations, as well as a conversation about your health goals and wellness issues like sleep, nutrition, physical activity, and mental health. If you have a chronic health condition, a PCP helps you manage symptoms and prevent complications.
Having a healthcare partner with whom you can think more holistically about your health helps in ways that may not be obvious right away but can make a big difference over time — physically, emotionally, even financially.
How do I pick the right person?
Here are some things you may want to consider when choosing your PCP.
Clinical approach. Some providers are more traditional in their approach, while some incorporate complementary and alternative recommendations. Others are more experienced with areas like sports medicine or mental health. What are your needs and values?
Personality. Whether you’re old-school and call it “bedside manner” or new-agey and call it “energy,” you want a provider who feels right to you. Are you looking for a great listener? Someone who’s more like a coach who can motivate you to reach your health goals? Or maybe you want a provider who’s straightforward and just-the-facts.
Expertise. Perhaps you’d like a provider who sees a lot of patients like you — other women or LGBTQ patients, for example. Maybe you have a thyroid disorder and prefer a provider who has an interest in hormone-related conditions. The right provider for you will have a strong foundation in your personal health concerns.
Insurance coverage: Fortunately, finding an in-network PCP is less challenging than finding a specialist. Go with a doctor or practice you've heard about and trust, and check to see if they take your insurance. Just don't let the tail wag the dog -- that is, it's best to avoid picking a doctor just because they're on the "covered" list with your insurance company.
Connections to specialists: If something complicated comes up with your health, you want a PCP who has relationships with the best specialists in your area -- preferably doctors based at your local academic medical center, where patient health outcomes are typically better than at smaller practices or community hospitals.
For some people, the most efficient route to a good primary care doctor is to ask your friends and family if they know of anyone they like, and then look on the practitioner's website or call to see if they take your insurance. Others find it easiest to first choose a practice through a nearby medical center or well-known direct primary care practice, such as One Medical, Iora Health, or Qliance (disclosure: I currently work for One Medical). Once you're an established patient, the doctors and support staff can help you choose a practitioner that's the right fit for you.
However you go about it, get a primary care doctor! Once you find someone you like and who knows a lot about you, you won't regret it.
A version of this article was originally published on the One Medical Blog.