Sure, the urgent care clinic on the corner can prescribe antibiotics for a sinus infection. Emergency orthopedics clinics can set a broken bone. Your local pharmacy can vaccinate you for flu, COVID-19 and shingles.
So do you really need your own primary care provider (PCP)?
Absolutely, says UNC Health primary care physician Christine Gladman, MD. Seeing the same primary care physician for all your medical needs, including preventive care as well as illness treatment, will increase the consistency of care you receive and reduce some of the risks associated with seeing a provider who doesn’t know your medical history.
“You want someone who can get to know you over time,” Dr. Gladman says. “The best doctor for you is one who fits your needs, including your communication style.”
Most primary care doctors specialize in internal medicine or family medicine. They work with you to stay healthy and to get better when you are sick, based on your lifestyle, health condition and medical history.
If you don’t have a primary care provider, here are six reasons to consider getting one.
1. Primary care providers take a holistic approach to your care.
Your PCP will give you regular checkups and monitor your health over time. They will keep a record of your vitals such as blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, and check in with you on your mental health and how you’re handling stress. They have a broad understanding of your general health concerns and challenges and how your overall health affects your life.
“Our bodies are complicated,” Dr. Gladman says. “The medicines we take are complicated. And a lot of times, more than one thing is going on, so we need to consider your care holistically.”
2. PCPs know what treatments you’ve had before.
Your primary care doctor will have records of medicines you’ve taken before—and know what worked and what didn’t work. They will know what tests or vaccines you’ve had recently and don’t need to have repeated, which can save time, discomfort and even money.
“When you have a relationship with a doctor who knows you, then you have consistent care over time,” Dr. Gladman says. “Maybe you come in with symptoms, and your primary care doctor can say, ‘Remember when this happened a few years ago? It seems to be flaring up again.’ They know your history and can progress your care, rather than repeating the same procedures or trying treatments that didn’t previously work.”
3. PCPs know what medications you are taking and your medication history.
Your medications are part of your medical records: what you are taking now and what you have taken in the past, and whether it worked for you. Even if another doctor (a specialist, for example) prescribed a medicine, your PCP can keep a record of what it was, what dose you were taking, how long you took it and whether you experienced side effects.
PCPs can help you avoid sometimes-serious drug interactions or side effects. They know what drugs you take and your health conditions; if you have high blood pressure, for example, you shouldn’t take certain nasal decongestants. This is why they also ask about any over-the-counter medicines that you take.
And then there are lifestyle or career factors. For example, your PCP might advise against medicines that cause drowsiness if they know you fly your own airplane or drive a truck for a living.
“Your doctor can help you reduce the number of medications you’re taking, too,” Dr. Gladman says. “Some medicines may have the same impact as others or counteract the benefits of other medications you are taking. Your doctor sees the whole picture.”
4. PCPs can refer you to the right specialist.
Some doctors are educated and trained to treat specific illnesses or parts of the body. For example, a cardiologist is a heart expert. A pulmonologist is a lung expert. Your primary care doctor may suggest you see one of these specialists to get the very best treatment for a particular problem, especially if surgery is needed. They can often refer you to a trusted colleague.
Your primary care doctor also can help you decide what kind of specialist you need. For example, if you have arthritis, should you consult a rheumatologist or an orthopedist? If you have headaches, should you see a neurologist, an ENT (ears, nose and throat) doctor, or an allergist?
The decision may be based on a diagnosis made by your primary care doctor. If you see a specialist, that doctor won’t treat other medical conditions you have. You will go back to your PCP for general care.
5. It’s often easier to get care after hours if your doctor is familiar with your health history.
Illness doesn’t happen only on weekdays during business hours. Many practices have a doctor or nurse on-call for regular patients. Even if your usual doctor isn’t available, his or her colleagues will have access to your medical records. This gives them a head start as they try to understand what is wrong.
If you do end up going to an urgent care clinic or a hospital emergency room, make sure you let your doctor know what you were treated for and what care (including prescriptions) you received. That visit can then become part of your medical record.
6. Telehealth visits are more efficient with someone who knows you.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, virtual medical visits (telehealth) have become more common. Dr. Gladman says these visits are more productive if the doctor knows the patient already.
“It’s easier to see if something is unusual about the patient if you’ve seen them before,” she says.
Telehealth visits have some advantages, too. The doctor can see the patient in his or her environment. Maybe someone with allergies is keeping their windows open or has a pet. It gives the doctor more information to understand the patient’s lifestyle and health.
“There are lots of conditions we can treat without having to feel or listen to the patient,” Dr. Gladman says.
If you don’t already have a primary care physician, find one near you.