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Empowering you for a visit with your PCP: What to know

January 12, 2022 | Wellness | Healthy You | Aging Well

Doctor wearing a mask talks with a patient in exam room

PCPs are your health advocate, and partnering with them will result in better health and well-being.

One of the most important things you can do for your health is to establish a good relationship with your primary care provider (PCP).

A PCP is someone you trust and with whom you can build a long relationship to make it easier to talk about your health. The goal of a PCP is to take care of you when you are sick, provide preventive care, and help you reach and track your health goals.

If you have a health concern or a chronic condition, a PCP can assist with coordinating your care. Need a specialist? A PCP can give you recommendations, initiate referrals and guide you through the health care system.

“PCPs are your health advocate,” says Sarah Winslow, MD, a provider with PeaceHealth Medical Group. “We care for the whole person and help our patients foster healthy habits to prevent disease and live their best lives.”

How do I choose the right PCP?

Having a PCP you are happy with is vital in keeping you healthy and active. PCPs come from many medical specialties, including internists, family practitioners, pediatricians, nurse practitioners, geriatricians or physician assistants. Here are some things to consider when choosing a PCP.

  • Clinical approach. Some providers are more traditional, while others incorporate complementary and alternative therapies. Others are more focused on disease treatment or wellness and prevention.
  • Personality. You want to choose a provider who feels right to you and is someone you feel comfortable sharing personal details with. Think about what type of communication style (friendly and warm or more formal) is important to you.
  • Expertise. Perhaps you’d like a provider who sees patients like you—other women or LGBTQ patients, for example. If this is important to you, look for a provider with a strong foundation in your health concerns.
  • Certifications and Interests: Consider a PCP’s professional credentials and personal interests. You can often find these on a provider’s website. For example, Dr. Winslow is certified in preventive medicine and is interested in lifestyle medicine.
  • Language: While interpretive services can help, you might prefer seeing a provider who speaks your native language. Many providers have either grown up speaking a language other than English or have learned another language in the course of their training.

Other considerations include whether the PCP you are considering is in your insurance network, whether they have extended office hours, if their office is conveniently located, and if the office staff is friendly and welcoming.

If you don’t feel like you have a quality relationship with your current PCP, you can always change at any time. Check with your insurance provider to see which providers are covered before selecting a new provider. Some insurance plans limit which providers you can choose from or provide financial incentives to choose one in their network.

Make the most of your next PCP visit

Whether you’re seeing your PCP for a regular checkup or because you’re not feeling well, preparing in advance will help you ask important questions and understand what your doctor is telling you. Here are some suggestions that can help make your time with your PCP even more valuable.

Make a list of your questions and concerns.

Bring a written list of questions and concerns....perhaps about your blood pressure, exercise, a new symptom you want to get checked out, or a problem that may require referral to a specialist.

For your current ailments, think about how you feel physically, emotionally and mentally. Make notes about the odd ache or pain you may have noticed since your last visit. Ask yourself:

  • Are the symptoms constant? If not, when do I experience them?
  • What makes the symptoms better? Worse?
  • How do the symptoms affect my daily activities? Which ones? How?

In addition to your existing aches and pains, other questions to ask your PCP could include:

  • Which wellness tests do I need? Depending on your age, family medical history and previous tests and screenings, your PCP may recommend certain types of tests.
  • How does my family history affect my health? If you have a close family member (parent, sibling, child) with a chronic ailment, such as heart disease or diabetes, you are at a much greater risk of developing it as well. Your PCP can explain the proactive steps you can take to protect your health.
  • Am I at risk of developing heart disease? Heart disease is the No. 1 potentially fatal disease among Americans. Many people with heart conditions don’t even know they are at risk. Ask your PCP to assess your risk, particularly if heart disease runs in your family. 

Discuss your lifestyle and habits.

To provide you with the best care, your PCP needs to understand you and the lifestyle you live. Be open and honest about your habits. Discuss matters such as what you eat, where you live, how you sleep, sexual practices, how much exercise you get, your work and your daily activities. Tell your doctor if you have noticed changes in your appetite, weight, sleep or energy levels. Painting a complete picture for your PCP will help them understand your medical conditions and recommend the best treatments.

“It may be uncomfortable to talk about some topics, but the more you share, the better we can advise you,” says Dr. Winslow. “Your PCP isn’t here to judge you. We’re here to help, so please be honest. Lying to your PCP may be a disservice to your health.”

If you feel judgment from your PCP and the need to keep information hidden, you may want to find a PCP you feel safe with.

Bring information about your medications.

Bring a list of your medications, including dosages, to your appointment. Don’t forget to include over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies and supplements (e.g., eye drops, vitamins and laxatives). Be sure to include the dosages. Informing your PCP will help prevent interactions that can sometimes cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects.

Know your goals for your health and ask your PCP how to achieve them.

Do you want to lose weight or start an exercise routine? Talk with your PCP about your goals. They can help you make a plan that will fit your lifestyle and current health conditions, especially if you have a specific health problem or are recovering from a recent injury or surgery. They can also ensure that you have the support you need to stick to your plan.

If you’re battling multiple health conditions at once (e.g., high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, asthma), one of those conditions may be making your day-to-day life especially difficult. Emphasize what condition you would like to manage better and work with your PCP to create an actionable plan.

“Your PCP will connect you with the right specialist to treat your condition or make referrals to other providers to support your health goals,” adds Dr. Winslow.

Take notes.

Write down what your PCP tells you, especially when discussing treatment plans; don’t rely on your memory. If you’re confused and not understanding something, don’t be afraid to ask your PCP to write down what was covered in the appointment. Your notes will help you when it comes to specific numbers (e.g., blood pressure) you want to hit or when to take medications.

Consider signing up for access to your electronic medical chart. For patients established with a PeaceHealth PCP, you can view your record at My PeaceHealth. Once signed up, you can go back and reference provider notes and even communicate directly with your PCP by sending secure messages. Messages, however, do not take the place of a full history and physical exam that occurs in a visit.

Bring a family member or trusted friend.

If you’re not feeling well, you may want to consider bringing a family member or trusted friend with you to the appointment—if possible. Having someone with you to help take notes or ask questions can ensure you have the support you need. Please be aware that due to the pandemic, many healthcare providers currently have visitor restrictions with limited exceptions due to COVID-19. Be sure to check prior to your appointment.

Having a PCP with whom you can think more holistically about your health helps in a way that may not be obvious right away but can make a big difference over time — physically, emotionally, even financially.

“Our priority is your health and wellness,” reminds Dr. Winslow. “Partnering with your PCP will pay dividends in the long run.”