Do You Really Need a Primary Care Doctor?
You’re a generally healthy person who never gets sick, and when you do you just go to an urgent care or convenience care clinic. Do you really need a primary care doctor?
In short, the answer is yes. A primary care doctor can coordinate your care, save you time and money, and help you keep on top of your health.
And yet, out of about 930 million doctor’s office visits in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control says only a little more than half of those visits were to primary care physicians, despite 83 percent of adults and 92 percent of children having reported seeking medical attention last year.
“I always encourage my friends and family to have a primary care doctor,” said internal medicine physician Rachel Dunagin, who practices at Internal Medicine Associates of Plano.
Dunagin says the reasons for finding a primary care physician are numerous.
“Having an established relationship with a primary care physician saves a lot of time in the future when you are sick,” she said.
With all the paperwork already filled out and your medical history on file, she said that a primary care physician can treat you much more efficiently.
“We are also able to establish health goals with you and manage your overall progress,” Dunagin added.
Besides the costs, those trips to urgent care or the emergency room are also less desirable than visiting your primary care physician because of continuity of care, she added.
“People who do not have a primary care doctor often go to urgent care facilities or the emergency room, which means a different doctor each time, not to mention higher costs.
“The better we know you and your history, the better care you receive. We also act as your quarterback — we refer to specialists with whom we have collaborative relationships and work with them to ensure you the best treatment,” Dunagin said. “Studies have shown that areas that have higher primary care physicians per capita have better health outcomes overall including decreased death from cancer, heart attacks and strokes.”
In other words, not only can your primary care physician treat those acute illnesses that you’ve been going to urgent care for, but they can help prevent future illnesses, too.
“Primary care physicians treat a myriad of ailments,” Dunagin said. “From acute to chronic, simple to complex, the primary care physician is your first stop for treatment. We also work hard on preventative care: screening for breast cancer; screening for cervical cancer, including performing Pap smears; screening for colon cancer; heart checks with EKG; hearing tests; screening for osteoporosis (how brittle your bones are); and much more.”
So who can be a primary care physician? After all, if you try out Texas Health Resources’ Find a Physician tool, there is no “primary care” option. What do you look for?
“Internal medicine doctors, family practice doctors and pediatricians,” Dunagin said.
The National Institutes of Health’s Medical Library also includes geriatricians who treat and coordinate the care of elderly patients with their own set of specific needs.
Dunagin said she is often asked what the difference is between an internal medicine doctor (or internist) and a family practice doctor.
“Internal medicine doctors only treat adults and have extensive training in adult medicine and handle a variety of complex medical diagnoses,” she explained. “Family practice doctors are trained to take care of both adults and kids. Family practice doctors were originally seen more in small towns and would take care of the whole family — even delivering babies!”
And of course, pediatricians treat only children.
So once you’ve found a likely candidate that is on your insurance plan, what else makes your prospective primary care doctor a good fit?
“It is equally important that the physician themselves is a good match for you. Look online and read their bio before choosing. Set up a get-established appointment to meet the doctor,” Dunagin said. “You should feel at ease to talk with the doctor. The doctor should listen, not just talk. Make sure you feel heard; your insight is very important for us to treat you well. Trust and a good rapport are key.”
Dunagin said that extras can also factor in, such as patient portals that allow you to contact the doctor by email outside of office hours, or extended office hours that allow you to make appointments before work or even during lunch.
If you are looking for a doctor, Texas Health Resources offers an easy-to-use tool. Simply choose the specialty, type in your zip code and select a range. Once a list of physicians appears, you can click on a physician and access contact information, education background and a list of insurance plans the doctor accepts.
Has your child outgrown the pediatrician? Take a look at our infographic so you can ease into the process.