What Does a Primary Care Physician Do?

Your primary care physician (PCP) plays a key role on your healthcare team, but their importance is often overlooked. 

August 15, 2021

Your primary care physician (PCP) plays a key role on your healthcare team, but their importance is often overlooked. 

According to Harvard Medical School research, fewer Americans have a primary care physician than ever before. That’s a problem, because primary care is associated with better health.

When a medical problem arises, is your first instinct to head to urgent care? Overreliance on urgent care is common, but in most cases, you’re better off calling your PCP for guidance. They might be able to prescribe something over the phone, fit you in for an appointment, or send you straight to the lab for a test. They’ll also let you know if urgent care is your best option. 

Your primary care doctor does more than annual physicals. People tend to think of their PCP as the person they call when they need a referral to a specialist, but primary care doctors can take care of a lot of problems themselves. You don't have to go to a gastroenterologist when you have a little acid reflux. You don’t need a pulmonologist if you have a cough.

Every patient’s health situation is different. When referring you to specialists, your PCP can communicate with them about your individual needs. For example, if a patient with kidney problems has a UTI, I’m going to call their kidney specialist to coordinate care.

If you don't have a PCP, it's worth establishing yourself with one. Make an appointment for a physical so they know who you are. They’ll do a general physical exam, check things like your weight and cholesterol, run lab tests, and let you know if it’s time for a pap smear, mammogram, colonoscopy or other routine tests. Your primary care doctor isn’t just there to help when you’re sick; they focus on preventative care, so it’s worth building a relationship and seeing the same doctor on a regular basis. If you’re healthy, your PCP will help you stay that way.

A great PCP listens to you, answers your questions, and helps take care of you. If you don’t feel comfortable with the doctor, or your concerns are mocked, consider finding another PCP

When you see your primary care doctor, you're getting treatment from someone who knows you and is familiar with your health history. At urgent care, you're seeing a stranger whose main concern is, "Is this life threatening?" The urgent care doctor just wants to make sure that you don't die — and that they don't get sued. If it’s anything serious, they’re going to send you to the ER.

If you're not in an emergency situation, always call your primary care physician. Even after office hours, there should be someone on call who can guide you on where to go. If you have a health question, send a message to your doctor instead of asking your Facebook friends for advice.

Anne Herlick MSN, FNP-BC is a Family Nurse Practitioner with more than 20 years of clinical experience. She is a Senior Advisor with Better Health Advisors and works at NYU Langone Health.

At Better Health Advisors, we use our knowledge of the healthcare industry, our wide personal network, and other resources to recommend great doctors, including PCPs and specialists. If we can help you simplify the process of finding a doctor, reach out and let us know.

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