Do You Really Need a Primary Care Doctor?
When was the last time you went to the doctor? When you caught that horrible flu virus running rampant in your office? That time you tweaked your ankle running? Or maybe the last time you saw a physician was when you were still seeing a pediatrician? If you can’t remember the last time you made a trip to the doctor’s office, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Of the more than 990 million office visits recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2015, only about half of those visits were to a primary care physician.
That’s a troubling, yet not necessarily shocking, statistic for Jessica Ngo, M.D., internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and Preston Hollow Internal Medicine, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, who says due to the variety of options to seek medical care right now, more and more people are choosing to jump from physician to physician in order to be seen as soon as possible.
“It’s easier than ever to hop from one doctor to another through online or app-based scheduling programs. And while that may be convenient for people with hard-to-predict schedules, it makes continuity of care very difficult,” Ngo says. “Having a provider who knows your medical history and personality helps you, as the patient, receive better care. This is particularly important for patients who may not always be able to accurately explain their symptoms or existing medical conditions.”
Outside of providing medical care for acute issues, like the flu you caught at your office or that time you sprained your ankle, Ngo explains that seeing a primary care physician is about building a relationship with a provider you know and trust to have your best interests in mind.
“For example, if a usually talkative elderly patient with dementia comes in to see me and they are not as sociable during the visit, I know that something else is going on or they may be ill,” she says.
The Texas Health Resources “Find-a-Physician” tool makes it easy to find a primary care provider. Just filter for the specialties of Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Geriatric Medicine or Family Nurse Practitioner to find a provider convenient to your home or office.
Internists only treat adults, have extensive training in adult medicine and can handle a variety of complex medical diagnoses. Family Medicine physicians are trained to take care of both adults and children, so they’re great for families. Geriatricians treat and coordinate the care of elderly patients with their own set of specific needs.
So if you haven’t seen a primary care physician in a while, but you are not ill, where can you start? Ngo says an annual physical or wellness check is a great first step.
“The annual physical is a good time to review your health and address anything that may be falling through the cracks, such as immunizations, cancer screenings, and questions you may have that you forgot to bring up at your last visit,” she explains. “It is also a good time to screen for medical issues early before they become a long-term chronic illness.”
In addition to providing continual care, seeing the same physician can not only cut out some minor annoyances that come along with visiting a new doctor every time, like filling out new paperwork and medical history summaries or validating insurance if needed, but it can also save you from often-costly urgent care or emergency department bills for issues that can be treated in-office. Regularly seeing your primary care physician can also potentially keep you out of the emergency department by addressing issues before they become emergencies.
Primary care providers can address multiple medical illnesses, but they also know their limits and understand when to refer you to a specialist. While Ngo notes that it’s just as easy to simply find a specialist online, your primary care physician can help connect you with someone who is able to properly address your particular concern. A lot of the time, the physician knows and trusts the specialist they refer you to, as well.
“They’re referring you to someone they trust,” Ngo says. “Most providers will refer you to someone they would refer their own family to.”
When searching for a primary care physician, it is important that the physician themselves is a good match for you. Look online and read their biography and any patient reviews before choosing, but Ngo warns reviews may be misleading.
“It is fine to go to a website such as WebMD or Healthgrades to start your search, but be aware that a typical primary care provider sees several hundred patients a month and only a handful of those patients ever write a review — usually either very positive or very negative,” she explains.
You should feel at ease when talking to the doctor, and they should listen to you and your concerns, not just talk to you. Everyone has different preferences but finding a doctor who takes the time to get to know you helps build rapport and trust, which is a good, solid foundation for a partner in your health for life.
“Finding the right provider for you can be difficult and will take time. It may not be until after a handful of visits before you get a good feel for how a provider practices. If there are specific issues or questions that you have for your provider, it is important to bring them up at your first visit,” Ngo says. “Many times patients will see someone a friend or family member recommends but what’s important to ask is why the friend or family member likes that particular provider. Office hours and how communicative a provider is can also be important to patients.”
If some time has passed since your last checkup, there’s no better time to find a physician who can partner with you to achieve your health goals! Texas Health has more than 6,000 physicians across the Metroplex to help improve your health. To find the right doctor for you or your family, visit TexasHealth.org/provider or call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355).