This is the time of year when many Orange County residents mull over their health insurance options for the coming year.
Whether you have employer-sponsored insurance or purchase a policy on the open market, cost is often an important consideration. But choosing the right primary care physician should also be a priority.
A primary care provider (PCP) is your go-to person for well care, common medical problems and your gateway to emergency, specialist and hospital care. Think of the primary care physician as your partner in healthcare, says Dr. Sajee Lekawa medical director of the UC Irvine Health primary care offices in Tustin.
To find a primary care physician, you can ask friends and neighbors about doctors they like. You can read about physicians on websites, such as the UC Irvine Health primary care services website. Or you can call an office to ask about a physician's credentials and experience. In addition, says Lekawa, consider these three keys to good care:
Will your primary care doctor be your advocate?
Most healthcare today is managed care. This means that patients seek care within networks made up of a roster of physicians and hospitals. Your primary care doctor is your guide to that larger network.
"Patients have to feel their PCP is looking after all of their needs and is advocating for them when they need it," Lekawa says. "They are the ones who are going to decide whether you need to see a specialist and what specialist you're going to see."
The primary care physician keeps track of all your healthcare, noting which specialists you see and medications you take. The PCP is notified via electronic medical records if you go to urgent care or an emergency room.
"Your primary care physician should coordinate it all," she says. "Otherwise no one is putting things together. If you don't feel that's what your doctor is going to do for you, you should probably pick another doctor."
Your PCP makes sure you get the care you need – when you need it
Have you ever called to see a doctor only to be told the next available appointment is a month or more in the future?
That shouldn't happen with your primary care provider, Lekawa says. The primary care doctor should be able to see you promptly for minor conditions. When selecting a PCP, ask about the doctor's hours and if the office has additional services, such as same-day appointments, walk-in care, extended hours (evenings and weekends) and an urgent care center.
"We want to keep our patients out of the emergency room," she explains. "Having access to urgent care will help with that."
At two of UC Irvine Health's primary care offices, in Tustin and Orange, primary care doctors can refer their patients to specialists via a "fast track" system.
"We can definitely get our patients in to see specialists much quicker than if they call to make an appointment with a specialist," she says.
Patients who choose a PCP through UC Irvine Health can be assured they will have access to world-class specialists and a highly ranked, university medical center, should they ever require a higher level of care.
"It's so nice to have this pool of nationally known specialists," Lekawa says. "Also, remember that when you pick the PCP, you're picking the hospital associated with that PCP. That's great for our patients because UC Irvine Medical Center is our hospital."
Your doctor should be someone you can communicate with easily
You should have timely access to information, such as test results, or be able to ask questions of your primary care physician without having to go to the office. Some physicians use emails. Others have phone hours. At the UC Irvine Health office in Tustin, morning calls are returned by noon and afternoon calls are returned by 5 p.m.
"The chief complaint I hear from most patients who come to us from other offices is that they don't get an answer when they call for information," Lekawa says. "Patients know they have access to us even when they aren't coming in for an appointment."
Finally, find out if the primary care physician can see all members of your family, if that's your preference. Many PCPs see patients of all ages. Other times, adolescents and adults will see the PCP while children will see a pediatrician in the same office, she says. There are added benefits in being able to see the same PCP year after year.
"Your relationship with your PCP is different from any other doctor," Lekawa notes. "That is the person you have to trust to make sure you're getting everything you need and the person who may 'catch' something just because they know the patient so well."