A User's Guide to Your Doctor's Visit

ABC News' senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser recently visited his own primary care doctor and learned that a checkup is not as simple as it once was. Here are a few tips to help you find and prepare for your visit with your own primary care provider.

Why is it so important to have a primary care provider?

Data suggest that individuals who have an established, regular source of care, such as a primary care physician, receive more preventive visits and necessary screenings. Evidence also suggests that those who have good continuity of care with their doctors use the emergency room less often and may have lower rates of hospitalization. They may also have greater trust in their doctors and greater patient satisfaction.

VIDEO: Dr. Richard Besser offers tips for getting the most out of your physical.
Your Physical: Dr. Richard Besser Offers Tips to Get Prepared

What Is a Primary Care Provider?

A primary care provider is the main medical professional involved in your nonemergency care over time. The PCP's role is to (1) provide preventive care and teach healthy lifestyle choices; (2) identify and treat medical conditions; and (3) assess your medical problems in a timely manner, and to refer you to medical specialists when necessary.

It is important to establish a primary care physician before a problem occurs so that someone who knows you, your health and your body can care for and guide you through such a problem. For the primary care physician, familiarity with an individual's baseline or normal state when they feel well helps in the evaluation of when they are ill. Often, it may take a couple of months to get in to see a PCP if you are a new patient; however, once established as a patient in a practice, it is easier to get an immediate appointment for an urgent issue.

Going to the emergency room for a nonemergency can result in long waits. Average wait times in emergency rooms in the United States are almost four hours, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. Going to the ER for nonemergency care can also cause problems for the sickest patients who are having real emergencies. Many hospitals have urgent-care centers you may go to instead of the ER if you do not have a primary care physician or if yours is not available. This will often save you time and money.

How Do You Find and Choose a Primary Care Physician?

Choosing a PCP is an important decision that can be confusing. Remember, you are choosing someone with whom you hope to develop a long-term working relationship. So it's important that you choose a person you're comfortable with in regard to their style of communication, their language, even their gender.

And remember, you do have a choice about gender. When you ask for an appointment, ask if your provider is male or female, and let the office know what you prefer.

Here are some more tips:

1) If you have health insurance coverage and want your visits to be covered, at least in part, it's important to find out the rules of your coverage. Sometimes certain primary care providers are in network, and your insurance may cover these practitioners at a different rate than those who are out of network. That may guide your search.

2) Things to consider when choosing a primary care physician:

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