How to choose a primary care physician in 4 steps

With primary care, you get one go-to health care provider

Sanford Health family medicine clinic in Rock Rapids, Iowa

Plenty of public health announcements end with “ask your doctor.”

But what if you don’t have a doctor? Where do you start?

Sarah Prenger has some ideas. As the senior executive director of primary care and behavioral health at Sanford Health, she encourages everyone, regardless of age, to have a primary care doctor, someone you can establish and maintain a trusting relationship with.

1. Understand what to expect from a primary care physician

One of the main reasons it’s important to have a primary care provider is because it’s easier for one person to help a patient.

By having just one provider, Prenger said a patient can have more confidence knowing their needs will be met, whatever they are, and all facets of their health with be considered holistically.

“There are so many cool things about primary care — it’s sometimes referred to as your medical home. A primary care provider will manage everything and get to know you and your family over a long period of time.

“Part of knowing you and caring for you is making sure that you get the right care from the right provider. Your primary care provider will connect you to all of our specialties internally if or when needed.”

Prenger says primary care can include family medicine, internal medicine, general pediatrics, and OB/GYN.

She adds that even if an individual is healthy, they still need a primary care provider to keep them healthy.

“Make sure all of your preventative screenings like cancer and behavioral health screenings, and immunizations against preventable disease are all up to date,” said Prenger.

“You may have a broken ankle today, but you may also have diabetes, or depression, or a family history of X, Y, or Z. A primary care provider will see and know the entire picture.”

2. Search for a primary care doctor who matches your needs

If you don’t have a primary care provider, Prenger said a good place to start is the “Match with a Doctor” quiz on Sanford Health’s website.

This tool is a great option for finding a Sanford Health primary care physician or provider who matches your health and wellness preferences. Answer a few questions, and we’ll connect you to the right provider.

“You want a doctor that you can connect with, someone who has the same sort of values you have. On sanfordhealth.org, you can often find information about doctor’s ideas of care, personal interests, and even comments from actual patients about their experiences with that particular doctor. The star ratings even show how past patients ranked the doctor in certain areas of care such as listening, and taking time with you,” she said.

Learn more: Sanford Health adds ratings, reviews to doctor profiles

Sarah Heinen is a family physician at Sanford Health in Rock Rapids, Iowa. She said those who live in rural communities have a great opportunity to choose a primary care provider who “aligns with their ideals and beliefs.”

“Not only can you go online and look at someone’s credentials and experience, but in smaller towns, there may be more of an opportunity to speak to your friends, family, and people you trust most to get recommendations on providers,” said Dr. Heinen.

3. Schedule the first primary care visit

In scheduling an appointment to get to know your new doctor, Prenger said the best way to meet your doctor is face-to-face with an office visit.

“You’ll want to schedule an office visit and say it’s to establish care. That’s really the time to get to know the provider, and the provider to get to know you,” she said.

Prenger says you should bring a list of medications, medical history, family history, insurance information, concerns, goals, and questions to the visit.

“Your personal goals are important! Maybe you want to run a 5K; maybe you want to walk your daughter down the aisle; maybe you want to stop smoking. Your primary care doctor and their team can help you reach those goals,” she said.

4. Begin building trust

Dr. Heinen says that going to a singular provider can be of benefit for not only what kind of health concern you have, but also when you have it.

“It’s great to have a one stop shop where you can go to at any point in your life. From a young child to an older adult, and get your health concerns addressed. If your provider can’t address them, they have the tools and resources to point you to where you need to go,” she said.

And, seeing just one person, “builds trust and a relationship,” said Dr. Heinen.

“You get to know one another and address concerns in a personalized manner,” she added.

In seeking out help for behavioral or mental health, Prenger said she’d “always start with my primary care office.”

“In the Sanford footprint, we have about 50 integrated mental health therapists in our primary care offices. The therapists will partner with your doctor to get you the help you need and deserve.

“The therapist can access triage, provide whatever acute care is needed in the moment, and also connect you with the behavioral health services you need,” she said.

To schedule an appointment, a prospective patient can either visit Sanford Health’s website or call the clinic where the provider practices.

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Posted In Children's, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Physicians and APPs, Rock Rapids, Specialty Care, Women's