Your primary care physician (PCP) is instrumental in helping you live a healthier life.
Your PCP should advocate for your health — serving as the captain of your personal health care team. Staying healthy is about more than just visiting a doctor when you’re sick. Your PCP can treat illness and help you take proactive steps to prevent it.
Here’s your essential guide to making the most of a visit with your PCP — whether it’s in person or virtual.
What Is a Primary Care Physician (PCP)?
A primary care physician is exactly that — a primary doctor available for all your general health care needs.
They are the point of contact for just about any health care question you have. If they can’t answer it, they can connect you with someone who can.
Your PCP has training and experience with a wide range of common medical problems. These can include acute illnesses like strep throat, an ear infection, a pulled muscle, or COVID-19.
They also provide care for chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, or arthritis and can give advice on preventive care.
For health conditions that require a specialist, your PCP can help you choose the right one and coordinate your care to minimize stress and ensure you’re getting the help you need with your medical history in mind.
Generally, healthy adults under 50 years old should see their primary doctor once a year. But the number of recommended visits may increase based on your age, overall health, family medical history, and other needs. You may need to visit your PCP more often if you are managing complex medical conditions.
Primary care physicians provide general medical care in an outpatient setting. They often specialize in one of the following areas:
- Family medicine: A family practitioner cares for people of all ages and genders and addresses a variety of medical concerns. With patients ranging from young children through older adults that can even include entire families, family practitioners provide both preventive and acute care to a diverse range of people.
- Internal medicine: Internists care for adults and focus on the prevention and treatment of diseases, often focusing on adult chronic disease prevention and management.
- Geriatrics: These doctors provide care for older adults who often develop more complex medical conditions and multiple chronic illnesses as they age.
- Pediatrics: Pediatricians care for children from infancy to adolescence, usually focusing on general well-being and parental advice.
Primary care providers include MDs, DOs, NPs, and PAs. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants work closely with doctors and may have more availability for last-minute appointments.
Knowing what to ask your PCP during each visit is key to maximizing their impact on your health.
What Does a PCP Do?
Simply put, your PCP helps keep you healthy. They are often the foundation for your routine health care, keeping close records of your medical history over time.
They can identify and treat acute illnesses like the flu, offer preventive health screenings, administer vaccinations, and provide education about chronic health conditions like heart disease and cancer.
They can perform in-office tests and blood draws, prescribe medications, and make referrals to specialty clinics for care outside of their expertise. Many of these services are now available virtually through telehealth services. Though there are many conditions providers can now treat virtually, you may need to show up in person for certain testing.
Here’s what most primary care physicians and their staff offer. Your treatment might occur during your annual checkup or in response to a health issue that arises.
- Treatment for acute illnesses and minor injuries. These might include severe flu symptoms, rashes, sprains, strains, and minor burns.
- Sports-related physicals.
- Vaccines and immunizations.
- Screening tests for cholesterol, blood sugar, depression, and blood pressure.
- A review of prescription medicines and necessary updates.
- A review of your family history and a conversation about your personal health risks.
- Education and advice about health conditions, a healthy lifestyle, and dietary recommendations.
- Advice about mental health or sleep problems.
- Cryotherapy, skin biopsies, and excisions.
- Steroid and trigger point injections.
- Toenail removal.
- Pap smears and cervical cancer screenings.
- Specialist recommendations when necessary.
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What Happens During a PCP Visit?
If you’re seeing a new PCP for the first time, your doctor and his office staff will likely ask you to bring a valid photo ID, insurance card, knowledge of your medical history, and a list of any medications, supplements, and over-the-counter remedies you’re taking.
After filling out some paperwork, a nurse or medical assistant may check your height, weight, and pulse. Your care team will ask you a series of questions about your extended family’s medical history, your past and current medical providers, known allergies, and existing conditions before possibly performing a physical exam.
This may involve listening to your heart and lungs before taking a blood pressure reading and examining your head, neck, and throat for any trouble. If you prefer, you can ask that your first visit just involve chatting without a physical evaluation.
If you’re seeing a PCP who is already your PCP, you should still bring your photo ID, insurance card, and a list of questions to ask them. Your visit may start with important health and lifestyle questions from a nurse or medical assistant, who may check your height, weight, and pulse.
If you’re visiting for a specific reason, such as an acute illness, be prepared to describe your symptoms and when they began. Feel free to ask any questions you have during this visit, and your doctor will recommend a treatment plan.
If you’re visiting for an annual exam, your doctor will ask you health and lifestyle questions before performing a physical exam. At all points during your visit, you should feel comfortable communicating any concerns or questions you have.
After your visit, the clinic’s office staff will follow up with any payment or insurance-related questions and confirm your next appointments.
Then, you’re on your way!
Virtual Visits with Your PCP
Many people now prefer to meet with their PCP virtually thanks to the convenience of video visits. At UPMC, you can arrange scheduled video visits with a primary care expert or specialist through your patient portal.
Usually, patients will have an existing relationship with these doctors beforehand, although some do accept video visits for new patients. These visits are usually for non-emergency checkups and prescription renewals only.
Telemedicine visits are either telephone appointments or held over video chat.
When you log into your appointment, your doctor will review with you any information you provided when scheduling your visit. Unlike an in-person office visit, your PCP cannot take your vital signs. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may ask you to report your height, weight, blood pressure, temperature, or heart rate.
During a virtual visit, your provider cannot perform a physical exam. Instead, they may ask you to aim your screen for a closer look at the symptoms that are concerning. Be prepared to describe how certain areas of your body feel and show any medications you’re taking.
When your exam is complete, your doctor will recommend any necessary treatments, medications, or specialists. Feel free to ask follow-up questions during this time.
After your visit, a summary with details from your appointment will become available within your patient portal account.
PCP Visit Tips
- You can call your doctor’s office to schedule an appointment. You can usually find the number on the office’s website. Some offices offer online forms to request an appointment, too. If looking for a new provider, let the office staff know you would like to sit down and discuss your expectations.
- You can also book in-person and virtual appointments through your patient portal and the UPMC providers directory. Simply select “request an appointment” and follow the prompts. You will receive a confirmation message with information about your appointment.
- Confirm what you will need to bring to your appointment — identification, insurance card, records, new medication, etc.
- If meeting virtually, ask how to access the appointment and whether it will be on a secure online portal.
- Request a day-before reminder to make sure you don’t double-book yourself.
Preparing for the visit
- Make sure your PCP’s office still accepts your insurance and/or preferred form of payment.
- Write down a list of questions and concerns you have for your doctor. This should include new physical or mental health symptoms you hope to address. Some people keep a “symptoms diary.” You should even note sometimes-overlooked symptoms like changes in appetite.
- If meeting with your provider virtually, ensure your device can support the visit. You may need to use a certain browser or download an app, for example.
- Make note of any big changes in your life that you feel may affect your physical or emotional health, such as a big move or a job promotion.
- Keep a list of the medications you’re taking and their dosage, as well as any over-the-counter or herbal medicines in your regimen. Bring this list with you to your appointment.
- Print out or transfer any necessary test results and other documentation your doctor requests prior to your visit.
- Bring along any health or fitness trackers you use. They may offer your doctor more information about your lifestyle and daily routine.
- If you take your blood pressure at home, bring your blood pressure cuff with you to your appointment. Your doctor will be able to compare your cuff with the blood pressure cuff used at the office to ensure it is accurate.
- Bring updated emergency contact information, if any, and consider asking a loved one to join you for added support.
- Bring a pen and paper, your phone, or another note-taking device and document your doctor’s recommendations and thoughts.
- Route your commute to know exactly where you’re heading and how long it will take.
- Confirm your appointment date and time with office staff the day before your visit.
Day of the visit
Here’s what to expect on the day of your visit and how to make the most of your appointment.
Prepare to speak with your doctor from a place of honesty. Whether it’s a habit you’re reluctant to share or challenges with your mental health, your doctor is there to help — not judge.
- Give yourself enough travel time. Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes prior to your appointment and 30 minutes prior if you’re seeing a new doctor.
- Check in with the reception desk and confirm insurance and payment details.
- Be prepared to fill out some paperwork before seeing the doctor. This may include personal contact information, a brief summary of your medical history, and an explanation of why you’re seeing the doctor.
- If you’re someone who suffers from “white coat syndrome” and experiences high blood pressure while visiting the doctor, listen to calming music and do some breathing exercises while you’re in the waiting room. Let your doctor know if medical environments make you feel stressed or uncomfortable.
- A nurse or medical assistant will likely check your height and weight before you head to the examination room. There, you will talk to your doctor about your symptoms, lifestyle changes, and any concerns you have.
- They will then ask you a series of questions and may check your heart rate, blood pressure, and other physical readings.
- When your examination is complete, your doctor will recommend any necessary treatments, medications, or specialists. Feel free to ask follow-up questions during this time.
- Don’t forget to ask about prescription refills, test result outcomes, and follow-up appointments.
- Stop by the reception desk on your way out to confirm financial arrangements and follow-up appointments.
After the visit
- Schedule your next visit if you haven’t already.
- Ask your doctor how they prefer you contact them after hours if needed.
- Confirm prescription refills and pharmacy preferences with your doctor.
- Follow through with any doctor recommendations, such as visits with a specialist or medication modifications.
- Watch for and document any side effects possibly related to new medication and call your doctor with those — or any other — concerns.
How to Prepare for Your Primary Care Video Visit
Video visits with your doctor are a quick, convenient way to get the care you need without making a trip to the doctor’s office. They allow patients to schedule video visits with their provider through a smartphone, computer, or tablet.
Usually, patients will have an existing relationship with these doctors beforehand, although some do accept video visits for new patients. These visits are usually reserved for non-emergency checkups and prescription renewals. In addition to convenience, video visits often offer the ability to meet with a provider sooner than if scheduling in person.
A video appointment may work well for you if:
- You’re feeling sick and would like to talk about your symptoms.
- You have a mild rash, wound, or sore you’d like to show a doctor.
- You’re having a mental health issue and want to talk to your doctor.
- You have a medical question for your doctor or want to talk about your medications.
- You need a follow-up appointment after a procedure or hospitalization.
- You need a referral to a specialist.
During your video visit, your provider will look over the information you provided and ask follow-up questions.
During your exam, your provider may ask you to:
- Aim your screen for a closer look at your eyes, throat, or other part of the body.
- Feel a certain area of your body and describe how it feels, such as swollen.
- Move in a certain way to check for pain or range of motion.
- Show any medications that you are currently taking.
A few other tips to help your virtual visit go smoothly:
- Take pictures of bites, rashes, swollen ankles, or other issues ahead of time to upload or show your doctor.
- Find a quiet, well-lit spot where you can focus.
- Avoid sitting with a window right behind you, because backlighting makes you difficult to see.
- If you have headphones or earbuds, use them.
- If you’re using a computer, check to make sure your audio and video are working.
- Write down any questions you have ahead of time.
- Have a pen and paper handy for taking notes.
- If you have them, keep any at-home medical equipment nearby for taking vital signs, such as a scale, blood pressure cuff, thermometer, or pulse oximeter.
Though there are many conditions providers can treat virtually, you may need to show up in person for certain testing. If your condition is serious or an emergency, they will direct you to an outpatient location, urgent care, or emergency department. After your visit, a summary with details from your appointment will become available within your patient portal and stored in your UPMC record.
To schedule a video visit:
- Open your patient portal and select “Schedule an Appointment.”
- Choose the correct provider and complete all appointment details.
- If you are in need of a provider, you can use UPMC’s provider directory to find a doctor and schedule a video visit. You can search by name, specialty, and/or location to find the provider that matches your need.
To start your visit:
- Open your patient portal and log in or create an account using your email.
- Fifteen minutes prior to your scheduled appointment, click the “Start Video Visit” button on the home screen under your appointment date and time.
- You’ll enter your virtual exam room, and your UPMC provider will join shortly.
Checklist: What to Look for in a PCP
- Health insurance: Determine which doctors are in your health insurance “network” — or who accepts your insurance plan. Finding a professional who accepts your insurance means you’ll have lower out-of-pocket costs after each visit. If you do not have health insurance, ask about discounted self-pay options or possible help for low-income patients.
- Expertise: Many doctors identify as PCPs, including those in family practice, internal medicine, and general practice. Find a doctor who has experience with your particular health needs or concerns. If you have special health care needs, consider that in your search for a doctor. Ask family and friends for recommendations.
- Proximity: Research how far the doctor’s office is from your home or workplace. Consider whether their office hours are flexible enough to accommodate your schedule and ask about telehealth services, last-minute appointments, and missed/rescheduled appointment policies.
- Preferences: Consider whether you would feel most comfortable with a doctor of a particular gender, age range, or area of expertise.
- Atmosphere: Get a feel for the office’s vibes and how well you connect with the doctor and staff.
- Availability: Is medical care provided on weekends or after hours? If your primary care doctor is not available, whom will you meet with, if necessary?
- Bedside manner: Do you feel at ease with this provider? Do they listen well? Do they answer your questions clearly and honestly?
- Convenience: What services, tests, and screenings can this office offer on-site? Is parking accessible? How long do patients typically have to wait for an appointment?
What Questions Should I Ask During My PCP Appointment?
- Is there anything I should have concerns about related to my health right now?
- I’m worried about a new symptom. Can you give me advice?
- Is there anything I should do differently to stay healthy?
- Are there any vaccinations, screenings, or tests you would recommend for me right now? What about in the future?
- What is my risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, or other chronic conditions? How can I reduce those risks?
- How should I manage my condition, illness, or injury between visits?
- Why are you prescribing this medication? What should I expect while taking it?
- Would you recommend this treatment plan to your family members?
- Who can help me manage my condition between visits?
- Can you explain these test results?
- What should I work on before my next visit?
- When should I see you next?
- How should I contact you if I have a question? If you are unavailable, who should I see instead?
Your First Line of Defense
And there you have it!
Primary care doctors are often your first line of defense throughout your health care journey. They make sure you’re caught up on preventive vaccines, physicals, and screenings. They also track and record your medical history to diagnose conditions and address chronic health concerns.
Whether you’re looking for a new PCP or planning to visit a lifelong family doctor, this guide will help keep you on track and ready to ask the questions most important to your well-being.
About Primary Care
The relationship with a patient and their primary care doctor can be extremely valuable, and that’s what you get with UPMC Primary Care. When you work with a primary care physician (PCP), you develop a lasting relationship. Your doctor will get to know you and your history and can plan your treatments accordingly. Our PCPs offer a variety of services, including preventive care and treatment for both urgent and chronic conditions. With dozens of UPMC Primary Care locations across our network of care, you can find a PCP close to you. Schedule an appointment today.