For most Americans, healthcare is seen as a basic service to which every resident should have access. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Why? Because of barriers such as lack of health insurance, transportation issues, language differences and low income. 

Some individuals delay or defer care altogether simply because there’s a shortage of healthcare providers in the area in which they live. Not surprisingly, rural communities tend to have fewer providers than their urban counterparts. 

About one-quarter of adults in the United States report not having a primary care provider (PCP). In fact, among high-income countries, Americans are least likely to have a regular doctor or a long-standing relationship with a PCP, even though roughly 40 percent of the physician workforce consists of PCPs. 

Perks of a Strong Provider-Patient Relationship 

A primary care provider isn’t always a physician. Healthcare professionals such as internists, nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) also serve as PCPs. Family practitioners usually see patients of all ages, while internists (internal medicine physicians) often specialize in a specific area of the body. Internists working in primary care often care for more complex patients. Both NPs and PAs provide primary care, but depending on the practice standards within a state, the physician(s) with whom they make up a team have overall responsibility for the patients. 

Basically, PCPs identify and treat common non-emergency medical conditions, manage chronic conditions — i.e., high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression — and teach healthy lifestyle choices. They perform physical exams, wellness checks and routine preventive screenings, manage medication therapy for chronic conditions and refer patients to a specialist when necessary. The result is continuity of care, which has been linked to decreased emergency department use and hospitalizations, lower costs and higher patient and physician satisfaction 

PCPs are the central point for guiding you through your healthcare journey. By accessing care through a PCP, you have a trusted provider who:

  • Has an overall understanding of your health
  • Mitigates the need for costly unnecessary emergency room visits 
  • Prescribes medications and gives advice about OTC medications
  • Keeps track of your medical history, including medications and allergies
  • Collaborates with other clinicians to keep track of any specialty care
  • Teaches you ways to make better decisions about your health to prevent disease
  • Catches potential health problems before they become severe
  • Understands your treatment preferences
  • Monitors your mental and behavioral health
  • Helps you navigate the healthcare system

In addition to these advantages, PCPs are able to address multiple health needs in a single appointment and provide regular patients with a more personalized treatment plan. Routine appointments with the same physician build a relationship that is beneficial to both parties by enabling you to feel more open in communicating your health issues. 

Remember those preventive screenings we mentioned earlier in this blog? Patients with a usual source of care — like a PCP — are more likely to receive recommended preventive services, such as flu shots, vaccines and cancer screenings. Plus, studies show that that increased likelihood results in better overall health outcomes. 

Putting Together a PCP Checklist 

Finding the right PCP for you is important. It’s essential that you choose a provider with whom you feel comfortable and who has the expertise, if applicable, that meets your specific healthcare needs. For example, if you play a lot of sports, it might be helpful to select a PCP that specializes in sports medicine. If you’re a senior citizen, consider opting for a doctor that focuses on geriatrics. 

Maybe you’d prefer a female doctor over a male physician. Perhaps you’d rather see a physician who isn’t a recent medical school graduate. Keep these things in mind when looking for a new PCP because honest, two-way communication is the backbone of any successful provider-patient relationship. 

You might not want to take much time to find a new PCP, but do at least some background research. The first part of that investigation should be ensuring the provider you choose accepts your health insurance. Most insurance companies offer directories on their website that list physicians who are part of their network and with whom they have negotiated discounted rates. If you select a provider who is out of your payer’s network, you’ll likely end up paying more. 

If you’re not sure if a certain provider accepts your insurance plan, contact them and ask. Give them the details not only about the insurance provider but also the specific plan you have. Some health maintenance organizations (HMOs) require patients to choose and report a PCP. 

Talk to your friends and family members for recommendations on a PCP. Check out online review sites. Ask any other healthcare providers you have, whether it’s a dentist, specialist or any other type of doctor. Some organizations — the American Board of Family Medicine, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Library of Medicine — offer online directories of providers across the United States. 

Don’t forget to verify that any PCP you’re considering is board-certified. This means the PCP has met the licensing requirements of the state(s) in which he or she practices and has passed comprehensive exams. 

Once you’ve narrowed your list to a top PCP or two, consider asking them any or all of the following questions:

  • Are you accepting new patients?
  • Do you conduct virtual visits?
  • What are your office hours? Do you have any weekend or extended hours?
  • Do you focus on disease prevention or treatment?
  • Do you offer digital health tools for patient use?
  • How long, on average, does it take to get an appointment?

Make sure the provider’s location is convenient for you and that the office staff is friendly and helpful. You don’t want to have a PCP whose office doesn’t return your calls or quickly respond to requests. 

Preparing for Your First Appointment 

Now that you’ve picked a PCP, it’s time to prepare for your first appointment. Establishing care with this clinician doesn’t mean you have to schedule appointments more than once a year unless necessary. It can even come in the form of an Annual Wellness Visit (AWV), which allows providers to gain information about the patient, review his or her wellness and develop a personalized prevention plan.  

When scheduling an appointment with your PCP, request one for a new patient. This type of appointment is usually about 30 minutes and enables the PCP to fully review your medical history. It also can be used to discuss and receive any appropriate immunizations.

If possible, arrange for your medical records, including test results and hospital visit information, to be transferred from your previous PCP’s office. By law, that PCP has to transfer your records within an appropriate amount of time. 

Before the appointment, write down any questions you have for your new PCP. Bring your medication list and any other information you deem important, data that might not be included in your medical records. 

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends asking yourself the following questions after your first appointment:

  • Do you feel at ease with this provider?
  • Did the provider show an interest in getting to know you?
  • Did they answer all your questions?
  • Did they explain things in a way you understood?

If the answer to these questions is “no,” it’s probably time to enlist the services of another PCP. It’s your health, and you have the right to receive healthcare from a provider you trust and who values you as a patient. 

For healthcare providers looking to attract new patients — and retain existing ones – Providertech’s CareCommunity automated platform helps collect and respond to care-centered feedback in real-time – allowing patients to be heard and their business to measure patient satisfaction. Follow Providertech on LinkedIn for more information about patient engagement.