If you’re like most people, you may think your primary care provider (also known as your PCP) is good for annual physicals, everyday illnesses, and flu shots — and providing referrals to specialists for everything else. In fact, it might surprise you to learn the full scope of services your provider can offer to keep you healthy.
A primary care provider is a specialist in family medicine, internal medicine, or pediatrics. Depending on your age, regular monitoring of your health can become essential — and your primary care provider is just the person for the job. This is because they have many of the tools needed to assess any health concerns that may arise during your life.
- Heart disease: About ½ of all Americans have at least one major risk factor for heart disease.
- Asthma: Over 24 million people in the US suffer from asthma.
- High cholesterol: Nearly 1 in 3 American adults have high cholesterol.
- Diabetes: Over 30 million Americans have diabetes — but only 23 million are diagnosed.
- Depression: Over 16 million American adults have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Primary care providers can help monitor these common health issues:
You may want to notify your primary care provider and/or their nurse if you will be requesting any tests ahead of your next appointment. Notifying them in advance will help with scheduling, as some tests take more time than others to perform.
With that in mind, here are 3 ways to get the most out of your primary care visits.
1. Prepare for Your Visit
Primary care providers are knowledgeable in many aspects of health care, and it’s important to take advantage of their expertise.
Your provider is trained to monitor all kinds of health issues, but it helps if you come to your appointments prepared.
Here are some ways you can effectively prepare for your appointments with your provider:
- Know what you want to discuss: Make a list of things you want to talk about — any physical or mental changes, concerns, questions — and bring them to your appointment.
- Ask all of your questions: If you’re not sure about a test or a treatment, ask. Your provider is there to answer those questions.
- Be honest: The best way for your primary care provider to keep you healthy is by telling them the truth about how you’re feeling — both physically and mentally.
- Make regular appointments: Maintain a regular schedule with your provider — this way, they can assess any changes and keep a detailed record of your health. For healthy people, this typically means scheduling a wellness exam (annual physical) once a year. If you are managing a chronic or short-term health condition, you may need to see your provider more often.
You may find yourself with concerns that are difficult to ask about, maybe because they seem too personal or embarrassing. It’s important to bring these matters up, though, because your provider needs all of this information to treat you effectively.
2. Get Your Blood Taken
A blood test can be an easy way to monitor for problems that might not show symptoms. Your provider can order a blood sample to get tested to gather a lot of important information about your health.
Blood tests can reveal two important concerns — high blood sugar and high cholesterol. High blood sugar can be an indicator of diabetes, which is when your body doesn’t properly use the food you eat to make energy, causing sugar to build up in your blood. Diabetes can cause serious complications like heart disease, blindness, and kidney failure, and it’s the seventh leading cause of death in the US.
Cholesterol is a fat that your body needs to work properly, but too much of it can increase your chance of developing heart disease and stroke, among other issues. In most cases, high cholesterol is caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, like being overweight or not exercising. But it can also be caused by health conditions like kidney disease, or medications, such as certain birth control pills. High cholesterol is also genetic, meaning that if your parents have it, you’re likely to have it, too.
If you are diagnosed with diabetes or high cholesterol, you’re not alone. Each year, 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, and over 78 million adults are taking or could benefit from taking cholesterol-lowering medication. Medications — along with healthy lifestyle changes — can greatly reduce your chances of complications from diabetes or high cholesterol.
For men age 50 and older, a blood test can also screen for prostate cancer. Physical prostate examinations are no longer routinely done if you’re not experiencing symptoms, so a blood test can help monitor your prostate health. This blood test checks your levels of a protein called prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which has been linked to an increased chance of developing prostate cancer.
A quick breakdown of a blood test:
- Your physician will usually send you to a laboratory (often located in their office) to get your blood drawn.
- The person who draws your blood — called a phlebotomist — might tie a band around your upper arm or ask you to make a fist, which allows them to insert the needle more easily.
- The phlebotomist will insert a needle into your vein in your arm to draw blood. This needle is attached to a small test tube, which is where your blood will be collected.
- You may feel a slight sting when the needle goes in or out of your vein.
- The entire procedure usually takes less than 3 minutes.
It’s also possible you may need no lab tests at all. Your provider will help you to determine if lab testing is appropriate for you.
3. Get Screened for Depression and Anxiety
Depression and anxiety are major problems among US adults — anxiety affects 40 million adults and depression affects 16 million adults. But less than half of Americans suffering from these disorders receive treatment — both of which are highly treatable through therapy and medication.
If you are undiagnosed or are not receiving treatment, you can turn to your primary care provider.
You might think that mental health screenings are only done by psychologists and psychiatrists, but your provider is essential in monitoring your mental health for conditions like depression and anxiety. Because you see your provider regularly, you may feel more comfortable being honest with them about your mental wellbeing, too.
Many offices provide you with a questionnaire prior to a regular check-up, which will ask you a couple of questions about your mental wellbeing. While you may want to rush through these questions, try to answer honestly and thoughtfully, as they can be important signs of mental health concerns.
If your initial responses signal a concern, your provider may follow up with further questions during your appointment. This set of questions may be different based on your age and life stage. Usually, if these questions lead to further concerns, your provider will connect you with a mental health professional.
A quick breakdown of a depression and anxiety screening:
- You’ll be given a short questionnaire — usually prior to the appointment or during check-in — to determine if there is any initial cause for concern.
- If necessary, your provider will use other tools to further assess those concerns. This might be another questionnaire, a discussion with your provider, or a computerized assessment tool.
- You and your provider will decide if you could benefit from seeing a mental health professional.