We live in an era in which health information is available on smartphones and chain drugstores offer walk-in medical clinics. Although these resources may have their place, they’re no substitute for a trusted advisor who knows your medical history and can help you navigate the complex health care system. For this, you need a primary care physician (PCP).
Having a PCP makes it easier to stay healthy and get effective care if you become ill. PCPs can be internists, who care for adults, or family medicine physicians, who care for patients of all ages and also may offer obstetric care. In some cases, specialists such as gynecologists or allergists may serve as PCPs.
Lutheran Medical Center partners with local primary care physicians in various ways. In some cases, we refer patients to PCPs for follow-up care after a hospital stay. If a hospitalized patient already has a PCP, we consult with that physician on the treatment plan. We also conduct regular community health needs assessments, most recently in 2015, to help improve our population’s access to health care, including primary care services.
“Having a good relationship with a PCP shapes your entire experience with the health care system,” says Amy Scanlan, MD, a family medicine physician who is Medical Director of primary care for SCL Physicians, a physician group that is part of SCL Health, which is Lutheran’s parent organization. “You’re able to have collaborative discussions and make more informed health care choices.”
Having this background makes it easier to get the right treatment when you’re sick. “When one of my patients comes in with a vague complaint, knowing his or her medical history helps me get to the root of the issue quickly,” says Anthony Leo, MD, an internist who serves as President of the medical staff at Lutheran.
Kenneth Cohen, MD, an internist who is Chief Medical Officer with New West Physicians, a private physician practice serving the Denver Metro area, adds that PCPs have an overall understanding of the health care system and their patients’ insurance coverage. “Some people think it’s more efficient to go directly to a specialist—a spine surgeon for back pain, for example—but this might lead to unnecessary testing and costs,” he says. “Too much care can be as dangerous as too little.”
Factors to Consider
You’ll likely start the process of choosing a PCP based on several factors, including the office’s proximity to your home or work, office hours and whether the physician takes your insurance. But deciding on the best person to fit your needs may take more effort.
Dr. Scanlan notes that the best time to start searching for a PCP is when you’re healthy. “You can ask family and neighbors for their recommendations, but realize that there’s no one physician who is right for everyone,” she says. “You need to find someone you’re comfortable with, and that may take some trial and error.”
Carla Rail, MD, a family medicine physician who is Senior Medical Director of Physician Health Partners, a management services organization owned and led by PCPs, advises making an initial “getting to know you” appointment. “Take a list of your medications and any medical records so you’re prepared to have a constructive discussion about your health,” she says. “Pay attention to how the office is managed and your interactions with the front office staff and support staff, as well as the physician.”
Keeping You Healthy
Once you’ve established a relationship, Dr. Rail advises going in for regular checkups. “The recommendation for physicals depends on age and family history, but once you hit age 40, a yearly physical is the best way to keep current with screenings, immunizations and other prevention measures,” she says. “And each checkup gives your physician a better understanding of how to keep you healthy.”
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