Staying healthy means more than going to see a doctor when you're sick. It also means taking charge of your health by eating well, exercising regularly, and maintaining a strong relationship with your family doctor.
"Your family doctor is first and foremost your health care partner," says Bernadette Kiraly, MD, a family physician at University of Utah Health. "Family doctors provide whole-person, patient-centered care that considers your unique situation and needs."
In addition to diagnosing and treating illnesses, family doctors provide a variety of other health care services, including care for common chronic conditions, immunizations, and health screenings, to help prevent future disease. Knowing when to see your family doctor starts with understanding what a family doctor is.
What is a family doctor?
Family doctors are primary care physicians who care for patients throughout their life, from infancy through old age. They focus on primary care, or the overall health and well-being of their patients, and assist in navigating the health care system.
"Family doctors are specially trained to provide comprehensive medical care and preventive services to every member of the family regardless of age, gender, or type of problem, whether it is a medical, mental health, or social issue," Kiraly says. "We can manage many health conditions, guide patients to specialists when needed, and keep patients on the path to good health."
Family doctors also provide women's health services for all stages of life, including prenatal and obstetrical care, and pediatric care, including well child visits. Having one doctor for the entire family can offer a number of benefits, ensuring your doctor has a detailed understanding of your family's medical history and social context.
When should you see your primary care doctor?
Your family doctor is your first point of contact in the health care system. You should see your family doctor if you:
- aren't feeling well
- need a medication refill
- have questions about managing a chronic health condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure
- have contraception needs
- need routine pregnancy care, or
- are due for your annual check-up.
"When it comes to managing your health, your family doctor is a great place to start," Kiraly says. "We are able to provide much, if not most, of your care."
How often should you see your primary care physician?
Even if you're in excellent health, it's a good idea to see your doctor for a check-up each year.
"During this visit, your family doctor will review any new diagnoses in your family history and provide anticipatory guidance," Kiraly says. "We also ask about any changes to your personal habits. Are you still exercising as much as you said you were last year? How is your sleep?"
Your primary care physician can also assist with mental health issues.
"Your mental health is extremely important," Kiraly says. "Family doctors can provide long-term psychiatric care for patients with uncomplicated mood disorders such as mild to moderate depression. Having a strong relationship with your family doctor allows you to have difficult conversations and get the care you need."
When should you see a specialist instead of your primary care provider?
It's a good idea to speak with your primary care physician before scheduling an appointment with a specialist, even if you believe you have a complicated or unusual health issue. Your family doctor may be able to provide the care you need. If it turns out you do need specialized care, your doctor can refer you to the right specialist.
"Your family doctor can ensure you see the appropriate specialist," Kiraly says. "For example, an esophageal surgeon who specializes in cancer probably doesn't need to see a patient with heartburn. That's not the best use of time for either the doctor or the patient. Your family doctor is always a good starting point."
When should you go to urgent care or the emergency room instead of a family practice?
Unfortunately, medical needs aren't always predictable. Sometimes issues arise when your doctor's office is closed. In that case, it may be appropriate to visit either urgent care or the emergency room.
Urgent care is a great choice if you experience a minor injury, like a small fracture or minor burn, or have a mild illness, like a sore throat or cough. You should go to the emergency room, however, if you experience more serious conditions, such as chest pains, difficulty breathing, or uncontrolled bleeding.
"If you're unsure about the level of care you need, you can always call your doctor's office for a triage with a nurse," Kiraly says. "Your doctor knows your history and can leverage technology to enhance and coordinate your care as needed. Your family doctor truly wants to help you achieve your health goals."