On the day you select a new primary care physician — whether you have moved to a new city or state, changed jobs or health insurance plans or simply outgrown your previous doctor — you are set to begin one of the most important relationships in your lifetime. It should be one that is based on trust and effective communication.
Primary care is often your first point of contact within a health care system, especially for non-emergencies. In 2018, the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey reported that more than half of the 860 million physician office visits made were to primary care doctors.
Many primary care visits are for wellness checks or physical exams, which tend to be a good time to get to know your doctor better and discuss your overall health. Just remember that a good patient-primary care physician relationship relies on open, honest two-way communication.
“If I could tell my future patients one thing, it would be that I need their help to take good care of them,” says Amy Magnuson, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside. “Take advantage of the annual checkup, because that’s how we get to know you and understand your unique history, needs and concerns.”
There are a variety of primary care physicians who have expertise in different areas of your health. It’s important to know what to look for when choosing a primary care doctor, starting with understanding the right type of physician for your individual needs.
Specializing in children, pediatricians focus their practices solely on caring for infants and children, guiding and supporting them through immunizations, illnesses and injuries until they reach the end of adolescence, somewhere between the ages of 14 and 18.
Physicians who specialize in family medicine are the generalists of medicine, trained to treat the entire family, from newborns to grandparents. They receive some training in both pediatrics and obstetrics (women’s health) during their education and can provide routine care for patients of all ages.
Specializing in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases in adults, internal medicine physicians are vital in helping patients manage chronic conditions. An internal medicine physician may choose to remain a generalist, or to further specialize in a wide variety of sub-specialties ranging from cardiology to sleep and sports medicine.
Many women of child-bearing age rely on their OB-GYN for routine screenings and care and, as such, receive the majority of their primary care through a physician who specializes in fertility, childbirth and female health issues.
Physicians who care for older patients exclusively (age 60 and older) are specially trained in the diseases and disorders associated with age.
Your ability to communicate effectively with a primary care physician may involve several factors. As you select a new physician, consider their qualifications and experience and even their style of communication.
Also consider whether age, gender, language or culture differences might affect what you choose to share with your doctor.
Sometimes women are more comfortable seeing women and men confide more in other men. Removing generational and language barriers may also play a key role in successful communication.
Before your first visit with a new physician, gather your medical records from your previous doctor and bring them to your new provider. To help your new partner in health get up to speed quickly, bring a folder containing accurate and complete lists of:
- Prior immunizations and dates
- Results of health screenings from the past several years
- Previous abnormal test results, surgeries and medical procedures you’ve undergone
- Current medications and supplements you take, including dosages and frequency
Also know that the first visit is just the first step on a long journey together. “By all means, I want my new patient to come in with a list of questions and concerns,” says Dr. Magnuson. “But we may not have time to cover them all in one visit. We can prioritize together and make follow-up appointments if necessary to be sure we cover everything.”
Finally, two-way communication is critical. To help make sure you’ve heard and understood your new doctor’s advice, you should repeat back what they’ve said and make notes on important points.
Some patients may bring along a family member to help make sure everything is understood; others may opt to audio record an office visit on their smartphone, then later transcribe these important directions and advice to a safe, permanent place, such as a medical record notebook or journal.