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Primary health care provider—Important?

Dear Alice,

I've been hearing a lot about having one health care provider follow my medical history, but I'm fairly healthy and don't have a chronic disease. I've been switching from my local doctors when I'm home to the on-campus docs. Is it really that important, given that I'm a healthy individual?

Yours,

Pretty Healthy

Dear Pretty Healthy, 

Many students are in the same situation as you when it comes to deciding on a health care provider. While it can be more convenient to split your care between providers based on your location, there are also some benefits to seeing the same provider every time you have an appointment. These benefits can include building trust with your health care provider, the provider having a better understanding of your overall health, and having all of your medical records in one place. When it comes to maintaining health and wellness, finding a primary care provider (PCP) is a great step! 

A primary care provider is a health care professional who you meet with in non-emergency situations for routine physical exams or when you feel sick. Meeting with your PCP at least once a year allows for them to conduct regular screenings to detect early signs of illness. Identifying any health concerns early can give you both more time to work on a prevention or treatment plan if needed. There are different kinds of PCPs often focusing on specific stages in a person's life including: 

  • Pediatricians who work with children and adolescents 
  • Geriatricians who work with older patients 
  • Internists who provide care to adults 
  • Family practitioners who support patients of all ages 

Generally, it’s recommended you schedule an appointment with your PCP for a physical exam every year. Some people, such as those over 50 or who have chronic health conditions may need to see their PCPs more frequently. These exams usually take about 30 minutes and can involve evaluation of different parts of the body. For example, a PCP might take your blood pressure, listen to your heart and lungs, measure your height and weight, or take your temperature to make sure that your vital signs are healthy. Additional evaluation (such as a breast exam or a prostate exam) might also take place depending on your sex assigned at birth. 

Additional exams may also be recommended as part of a PCP visit based on a patient’s age. Cholesterol screenings, for example, are suggested for men over 35 and women over 45. After the exam, your PCP might recommend further testing (such as a complete blood count or a urinalysis) if they have any concerns about your health. During these exams is also a great time to ask your PCP any questions you have and get their advice on health topics you may be interested in getting more information about. 

As you alluded to, there are indeed benefits to maintaining care with the same health care provider, if that option is available to you. Visiting the same PCP for the majority of your health care concerns helps to establish continuity of care—a term which refers to the long-term relationship between a client and their health care provider. Strong continuity of care leads to better person-centered care, meaning that your PCP will likely know more about your specific needs and what treatment options are feasible for those needs. Patients who maintain care with the same PCP also tend to trust them and their decisions more. It’s worth noting, however, that PCPs with long-term patients can also become complacent and may be more likely misdiagnose a condition because they’re familiar with the patient. 

When care from a PCP is discontinuous—often when it’s stopped completely or split between themselves and another physician—there’s greater risk of miscommunication. A new PCP may not have a complete or solid understanding of your background or medical history, which could impact a patient’s trust. Not only that, there’s potential for patients to experience harm based on the questions or tests they may run. That said, many patients like yourself may travel or have other circumstances that don’t allow them to always be in the same location as their preferred PCP, so finding a new one near you can be important for maintaining that care. 

When it comes to looking for a new PCP, it’s about finding a professional who’s a good fit for you. You might look for PCPs who are qualified, communicative, and aware of your specific needs so that they can provide the best treatment. It’s also recommended that you inquire about whether they accept your insurance so you can avoid paying high out-of-pocket costs. Should you find a PCP in your new area and decide to make an appointment, it can be helpful to bring with you a copy of your medical records, including lists of any medications that you take, previous surgeries, and history of chronic conditions. Having these documents available can make it easier for your PCP to design a health care approach that centers your needs. Be aware, though, that your former health care providers can't share information with your new PCP without your authorization. However, you do have the right to request a copy of your medical data from physicians. 

For tips on how to gather these documents before you go to your appointment, consider checking out How does one gather their scattered medical records? from the Go Ask Alice! archives. It may also be helpful to bring with you a list of any questions that you have for your new PCP so you can better determine if they can provide you with the care you’re seeking. 

Whether you see your local PCP or the campus one, having someone is a great first step in maintaining your health. Healthy or not, regular visits to a health care facility can mean the difference between early prevention or treatment and the worsening of an undiagnosed illness. Kudos to you for doing what you can to get more information and being an advocate for your or wellbeing. 

Wishing you continued health, 

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Last updated Aug 25, 2023
Originally published Feb 07, 2014