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How often should you see your primary care doctor?
Primary care physicians play a huge role in maintaining good health. Here’s why you should visit yours soon.
We get it. Life is busy. And it's easy to let some important things slide. Things such as regularly seeing your primary care physician (PCP). That might not seem like a big deal, especially if you’re feeling well.
But skipping these appointments isn't good for your health.
“To stay healthy, it’s essential to see a primary care physician,” says Walter Beaver, MD. He’s a family medicine physician at American Health Network, part of Optum, in Indianapolis. A PCP oversees your overall health. They help you create good-for-you habits, and they can spot health problems before you even have symptoms.
Seeing a PCP is linked to better health and lower health care costs. But unfortunately, the number of adults who use a PCP is dropping. And nearly half of people say they haven’t visited a PCP at all.1
Why are people avoiding their checkups? There are always some people who will refuse to go to doctors. But that’s not the only reason, says Dr. Beaver. “For example, many people ‘self-refer’ to specialists instead of seeing a PCP,” he says. But PCPs may be able to treat those problems themselves or connect the patient to a better specialist.
Another issue? People may simply go to an urgent care center when they get sick. It’s true that these centers serve an important role. But they’re not a substitute for the long-term relationship you’d have with a PCP. “The job of doctors who work at urgent care centers is to treat your issue and then move on,” says Dr. Beaver.
Why you need a PCP
Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your PCP (if you have one)? Here are just some of the benefits of making an appointment today.
1. Health issues can be caught earlier
When it comes to maintaining good health, catching issues early is key. There are many common problems that don’t cause immediate symptoms. Two examples are high blood pressure and high cholesterol. “These are issues that eat away at your health over time,” says Dr. Beaver. And they can lead to serious health consequences, such as a heart attack or a stroke.
The sooner you know that something is wrong, the better. Early treatment can help you manage the problem.
Another benefit? Your PCP will help make sure you get lifesaving cancer screenings. Plus, research shows that people with a PCP were more likely to get regular preventive care and fill their prescriptions.2
2. You could spend less money on health care over time
Catching health problems early can translate to lower health care costs over time. For example, if your PCP finds that you have high blood pressure, they will help you learn to manage it. That may be with some healthy changes and/or with medication. By staying on top of your health and conditions now, you can help prevent complications later. That could mean fewer medications, doctor visits and expensive procedures.3 And all of those mean less money out of your pocket.
3. You’ll learn good habits
Being healthy means following good habits. That includes:
- Eating well-balanced meals
- Getting enough sleep
These habits may sound simple, but sticking to them isn’t always easy. Plus, there’s a lot of unreliable advice out there. But you can count on the information and tips your PCP provides. Also, your PCP will tailor their advice to your health. For instance, if you have high cholesterol, they might suggest that you follow a heart-healthy eating plan. And they’ll help you understand exactly what that means.
4. You’ll understand your risk factors
There are clear steps you can take to help prevent conditions such as heart disease and certain cancers. But there are some things you can’t control, such as genetics. Sharing your family’s health history with your PCP is a must. They’ll use that information to determine when and how often you should get certain health screenings. And if certain diseases run in your family, your PCP will suggest ways to reduce your risk.
5. PCPs can spot and treat mental health conditions
If you see your PCP regularly, they will get to know you . That can make it easier for them to notice mood changes. “Often, I can tell the minute I walk into the room that a patient is having problems, simply by their body language,” Dr. Beaver says. “That’s because I know how they normally look and behave.”
In fact, PCPs provide most of the care for people with mental health conditions, according to a 2021 study. The authors say that makes accessing mental health care easier.4 It may also reduce the negative thinking some people have around mental health care. (Optum has mental health resources that fit with your life. Find support now.)
6. If you need to see a specialist, your PCP can suggest the best of the best
There’s nothing wrong with asking friends and family members for suggestions. But getting referrals for specialists from your PCP can lead to better care. They know which doctors are truly great and which ones might be worth skipping. Fortunately, there are only a few bad doctors out there, says Dr. Beaver. But a friend or family member may not know a doctor’s full record.
Types of PCPs and how to find one
There are several types of providers who can deliver primary care. They include5:
- Family practitioners, who care for children and adults of all ages
- Internists, who care for adults of all ages
- Pediatricians, who care for newborns, infants, children and teenagers
- Geriatricians, who care for older adults
- Obstetricians/gynecologists, who can serve as a PCP for women of childbearing age
- Nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who may be the PCP at some practices
Asking friends, family members and co-workers for recommendations can be a good way to find a PCP. You can also:
Talk to other doctors. If you see specialists, ask them for a recommendation. Even your dentist may be able to make suggestions.
Visit your health insurance company’s website. You’ll find a feature called “find a doctor” (or something similar) that allows you to look up PCPs in your area. That ensures that the doctor you’re interested in is in your plan’s network. You can also search for Optum doctors near you. Here’s how to get started.
- Annals of Internal Medicine. Declining use of primary care among commercially insured adults in the United States, 2008–2016. February 18, 2020. Accessed June 10, 2022.
- JAMA Internal Medicine. Quality and experience of outpatient care in the United States with and without primary care. January 28, 2019. Accessed June 10, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health and economic costs of chronic diseases. June 6, 2022. Accessed June 23, 2022.
- Journal of Primary Care & Community Health. Assessing primary care contributions to behavioral health: A cross-sectional study using medical expenditure panel survey. June 10, 2021. Accessed June 12, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. Choosing a primary care provider. July 19, 2021. Accessed June 23, 2022.
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