The One Doctor Everyone Needs

Discover the unexpected benefits of having a trusted family doctor.

If you’re healthy overall, or if you already visit specialists for different medical conditions, you might not have a primary care provider (PCP). But while skipping primary care might seem like it saves time and makes life easier, it can actually lead to stress, confusion and complications over time.

We spoke with Jenny Shih, DO, a board-certified family medicine physician associated with St. Mary Mercy Livonia in Livonia, Michigan, to learn about the many benefits of having a PCP.

What’s a primary care provider?

A PCP may be a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant who acts as your go-to person for general health needs. You can call on your PCP for help with most non-emergency medical issues.

As primary care physicians, we’re privileged to be able to serve many roles,” says Dr. Shih. “In the same day, we see such a variety of health issues, that we might act as your cardiologist, your dermatologist, your gynecologist, your psychologist, and the list goes on.”

At the same time, your PCP may act as your own personal health coach. “We’re your nutritionist when we counsel you about your diabetic diet. We’re your personal trainer when we demonstrate proper exercises to strengthen your back,” says Shih.

By understanding the overall picture of your health, and by getting to know you on a personal level, your PCP is in a unique position to offer tailored healthy living advice. He or she can explain how to:

Your PCP can also make a referral, or help you contact a specialist if you have a need that falls outside of their scope of practice. For example, if you confide in your doctor about feeling unsafe at home due to domestic violence, he or she can help you find the appropriate resources and a safe haven.

Your PCP can help you access emergency care faster

“If a person comes to see me at the clinic with an urgent or emergent condition, I’ll call the emergency room, speak with the physician and help transfer the person to the ER so they may be stabilized, evaluated and treated immediately,” says Shih.

If you have medical needs after hours, most PCP offices have healthcare providers on-call who may:

  • Answer pressing questions about medications or new symptoms
  • Advise you on whether you should visit an urgent care center, head to the ER or wait until the office opens in the morning
  • Access your patient files and speak to an ER doctor on your behalf

“It may not be your own PCP, but it will be a trusted partner who will listen to your concern and tell you what you need to do,” says Shih.

If you’re admitted to a hospital, some PCPs can still participate in your care. Depending on your reason for being admitted and your PCP’s affiliation with the hospital, their role might involve:

  • Receiving updates about your condition from the hospital staff via phone
  • Acting as a “consulting” doctor, or one who discusses your care with the hospital staff and makes recommendations
  • Joining your medical team and prescribing treatments
  • Taking on the role of your “attending,” or the lead doctor in charge of your care

When making your emergency care plan, ask your PCP which hospitals they’re affiliated with and what sort of role they’d assume if you were hospitalized. You may want to designate your go-to hospital as one where they have prescribing privileges—assuming the hospital is also in-network with your health insurance plan.

You could indicate the hospital name on a medical alert bracelet, a laminated card in your wallet or include it in your advanced directive, a legal document about your medical wishes.

Your PCP can keep your care organized  

Another important way your PCP helps to limit stress and complications is to keep your care organized. As your “healthcare home base,” he or she may communicate with specialists to make sure each member of your team is on the same page. Doing so can help prevent:

  • Medication errors: Keeping track of your medication list and communicating with your other doctors lets your PCP recognize and fix drug interactions. 
  • Unnecessary testing: Since your PCP has probably known you the longest, he or she can notify other healthcare providers if you’ve already had a test that they’ve prescribed.
  • Miscommunications between facilities: If you’re being transferred between medical facilities, your PCP can notify your new doctors about your background and any recent changes to your care plan.

“Your PCP is in a unique position to provide a whole-person approach,” says Shih. “Through regular visits and continuity of care, he or she can keep up-to-date on your current medical conditions, your allergies, which medications you’re taking now, which meds you’ve tried in the past, what your blood work or X-rays have shown, even what your specialists have recommended.”

Why not just go to an urgent care center?

“You can go to your PCP for any condition you could go to the urgent care facility for,” answers Shih. “But with a PCP, you get to develop an ongoing relationship. While you could go to an urgent care center for a sore throat or a UTI, I would urge you to have the same issues assessed and treated by your PCP.” If it’s after office hours, an initial call to your PCP’s office is a good place to start—your healthcare provider will let you know if a trip to an urgent care center is the best course of action.

By understanding the full context of any new issues, your PCP can make smart, individualized decisions about your care. “Your PCP is responsible for multiple facets of your care over your lifetime. They ultimately put all of these different pieces together to guide you to better health,” says Shih.

To find a PCP in your area, use Sharecare’s Find a Doctor tool.

Read more from Dr. Shih.

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