The way we get our healthcare is constantly evolving. But for all the benefits of telehealth, digital apps and walk-in clinics, one thing stays the same: Everyone needs a primary care provider.
Whether they are a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant, your primary care provider is your “go-to” for regular physical exams and preventive care, advice for staying healthy and help finding a specialist if you need one.
“Your primary care physician is your touchpoint for all your healthcare needs,” says Dr. Adewunmi Nuga, a primary care doctor herself and medical director of the UW Medicine Primary Care at Kirkland clinic. “They’re the person who’s going to refer you to a specialist if you need one. They’re going to follow up with you after every test and with every result.”
It’s not always easy to find a primary care provider these days, however. In fact, nearly half of adults under 30 don’t have one. A shortage of primary care providers in many parts of the country has meant that many clinics and hospitals aren’t able to meet the needs of new and existing patients. Despite these challenges, it’s still important to find a primary care provider if you can.
Why primary care is so important
Primary care may seem like one more thing to add to your busy schedule, but in the long-run, it will prevent more serious — and expensive — health issues. A study found that U.S. adults who keep routine visits with their primary care providers have a 19% lower chance of dying early and spend 33% less on healthcare.
Why is this? Having a primary care doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant means:
- A long-term relationship: Your primary care provider gets to know you, your family medical history and maybe even family members in your household themselves. They also see how your job, your family responsibilities and where you live may affect your health and your ability to stay well. Finally, knowing your primary care provider for a long period of time can make it easier to bring up difficult or uncomfortable health issues and seek care for them.
- Access to preventive screenings: A primary care provider keeps you on schedule for health screenings for common types of cancer (like breast, cervical, colon, lung and skin), diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. Screenings can make a big difference in getting an early diagnosis of an illness, which could be crucial for being able to get treatment before it’s too late, not to mention, much less expensive.
- Mental health support: Primary care providers screen you for mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and alcohol or other substance misuse. If you need professional support, they can refer you to a specialist or may even have someone in their practice who provides mental health care.
- Detection and vaccination for health risks: Testing for sexually transmitted diseases and recommending vaccines for flu, COVID-19, tetanus and other risks to your health are all on the checklist that your primary care provider keeps for you. Your PCP will also remind you when you are due or overdue for vaccinations and tests.
- Help managing chronic illness: Living with chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis or high blood pressure often means making changes to your lifestyle and diet, and taking medication. A primary care provider can help you manage your chronic illness by monitoring your symptoms over time, scheduling tests to ensure your condition is under control and making changes to your care plan as needed.
- Referrals to specialists: When you have a more serious or complicated health issue, your primary care provider can suggest a specialist they know and respect – someone with expertise in heart, diabetes, bone and joint, cancer, kidney or other specialized care. They can also help you get an appointment more quickly than calling yourself.
“Primary care practices offer patients greater continuity of care,” Nuga says. “You may not need to see your doctor all the time, but keeping an annual wellness appointment ensures your doctor will notice quickly when something goes wrong.”
How to find a primary care doctor
Many primary care practices are filled and have waiting lists. A 2022 survey, examining the time needed to schedule a new patient physician appointment in 15 major metropolitan areas, found that the average wait time for new patients to get an appointment with a doctor was 26 days. In Seattle, it was 28.2 days.
So, you may need persistence and patience, but it will pay off. Try these tips if you need to find a primary care doctor:
Get on it early
If you’ve waited until you have an urgent medical need to get an appointment at a doctor’s office, it’s likely too late for primary care. Primary care practices need to take care of their existing patients first. So start looking for a primary care provider early, before you have any pressing health issues. And once you have a primary care provider, make sure to book your wellness exam right away — and get ahead on scheduling for the following year too.
Do your research
Ask friends, co-workers, family members and people you trust if they have a primary care physician or nurse practitioner they’d recommend.
Search your health plan’s directory of primary care providers to see who’s accepting new patients. Also check out their online biographies and information such as their locations, hours and other services available, like translators.
Make a list of several doctors, then call their offices to see if they are taking new patients. If not, ask if you can see someone else in the practice. The important part is to become a patient and have your first appointment. If there’s a waitlist, ask to put your name on it. Then, if the office contacts you with an opening, jump on it so you can meet the doctor, have an initial appointment and see if they are a good fit for you.
Make sure they’re in-network
Health insurance covers many primary care services at no cost to you. But many health plans will only pay those costs if your primary care provider is in their network of doctors, hospitals, facilities and other healthcare services.
If you’re signing up for a health plan for the first time or renewing your coverage, check the plan’s directory of in-network doctors to be sure yours – including the one you see for primary care – participates with the plan.