3 reasons everyone needs a primary care provider (plus 5 steps to find the right one)

Doctor discussing with man over digital tablet. Young male is visiting healthcare worker in clinic. They are sitting at desk.

One in 4 Americans doesn’t have a primary care provider (PCP).

That’s a troubling fact because primary care is directly connected to quality of life.

Studies show that people who have primary care providers live longer, healthier lives. They also tend to be happier with their health care overall.

So why do so few of us have a provider we can trust? Dr. Jill Amos, licensed behavioral health psychologist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, explains.

Why is primary care important?

Dr. Amos: First, when you establish a relationship with a PCP, they get to know you. They can track your health statistics over time. So, they can see problems coming, whether it’s a change in weight, blood pressure or lab results. And they can identify and treat common medical problems before they become serious.

Second, as with any relationship, if you see a provider consistently, your trust will grow and you’ll be more comfortable with them over time. That will increase the likelihood that you’ll bring up concerns that you wouldn’t necessarily want to talk about with someone new. If you find the right person, the relationship you have with your PCP can become one of the most important ones you will ever have.

Third, when you have an established relationship with a doctor, you can seek help between visits for minor and major concerns. You can call the office with questions, message them through their web portal or app, or make a telehealth appointment.

Why do so many people not have a primary care provider?

The most common reasons are:

Unaware of health literacy

Dr. Amos: Taking care of our health is an important part of everyday life. And at some point, we’ll all need health services. Health literacy is the ability to receive, read, understand and use information about your health. This ability allows you to make appropriate health care decisions and properly follow treatment recommendations. Having a regular provider is actually a sign of health literacy because your provider can continuously help your understand your health.

View of healthcare & costs

Dr. Amos: People may view preventive health care as an unnecessary expense, preferring to deal with problems as they occur (ex. going to urgent care or the emergency room). This is often the case for people who don’t have health insurance. While that may be cheaper in a few cases, in the long run, paying for preventive care or health insurance through the healthcare marketplace is likely to be far less expensive.

Bad past experience

Dr. Amos: If someone has an experience with a provider where they feel they weren’t listened to or their complaints were ignored, they won’t return. The same is true of people who face prejudice or fear they might be judged for their appearance or beliefs.

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5 steps to take to find the right PCP

1. Ask for recommendations

Dr. Amos: Talk to your loved ones or crowdsource this information using social media if you feel comfortable.

2. Choose a PCP

Dr. Amos: People tend to think of primary care providers as all one thing, but there are actually several professionals that can provide that care.

Type of provider Who they treat
Family physician / general practice All ages — newborn to seniors
Internist Adults, with a focus on managing disease or chronic conditions
Geriatrician Older adults, typically age 65+
Pediatricians Children, 0-18
OB/GYN Females age 13+, with a focus on female health and reproduction (gynecology) as well as childbirth (obstetrics)
Nurse practitioner All ages
Physician assistant All ages

Dr. Amos: If you’re a single parent with 3 kids, consider a family practice physician who can see you and your kids. If you consider yourself to be healthy, with no specific concerns, a general practice physician may be a good fit. If you are aware that you have specific health concerns, such as a heart condition, you might want to find an internal medicine doctor for ongoing care.

And remember: nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants can also be primary care providers. They can perform routine evaluations, prescribe medications and give immunizations. This is a good option in rural areas where physicians aren’t always nearby.

3. Search for providers

If you have insurance, stay in-network

Dr. Amos: Going out of network is going to cost much more. Plus, when a provider is in-network, it means your insurance company has determined that they meet requirements to provide good care. Also, if you have concerns the insurance company can advocate on your behalf. And remember: annual appointments are usually covered at no cost, so take advantage of that!

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If you don’t have insurance, you have options

Dr. Amos: Most urban areas will have several providers that offer free health care, whether it’s a community health center or a religious service. The health department will also provide check-ups and immunizations; however, you won’t be guaranteed the same provider each time.

4. Consider logistics 

Dr. Amos: Don’t pick a provider far away from home, work or your kids’ school. Convenience is a big factor, especially when it comes to keeping up with preventive care.

5. Test out your PCP

Dr. Amos: Once you’ve picked someone, go see them. Give them a chance, but know that you’re under no obligation to stay with a provider you don’t like. If they’re not for you, go to see someone else.

Anything else people should know about PCP visits?

Try these 3 things:

1. Write down questions before you go.

Dr. Amos: People often forget what they want to ask in the exam room, so keep a list or record questions in the Notes app on your phone.

2. Take a loved one for support.

Dr. Amos: Bringing a loved one is a great idea, especially for important visits where you may need extra support. They also provide another set of ears if you’re getting complex or emotional news.

3. Stop the physician and ask questions.

Dr. Amos: Remember that physicians may assume you know the terms they’re using and understand everything they’re saying. You have to be your own health advocate. Often, that means slowing the conversation down and asking questions. And feel free to take notes so you can look up information later if needed.

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Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

Filed under: Health Topics


Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).