By now, as the novel coronavirus continues its assault on the nation, you’ve surely either received an email from your employer, read a statement from a government official or glanced at an article headline that says some combination of, “if you’re feeling sick, call your doctor.” This is good, honest, even decent advice. Doctors go to school for anywhere between 11-15 years so they can offer somewhat more profound advice than, say, the supposed leader of the free world calling for a day of prayer as an appropriate antidote to deal with this godforsaken virus.
But here’s the problem with the ask-your-own-personal-medical-professional approach, as suggested by employers and government officials who are themselves not sure how to best deal with the historic nature of this crisis: A lot of people don’t have their own doctor. In 2019, U.S. News reported that “the number of Americans who have a primary care doctor is shrinking.” “[A] new study found that in 2015, an estimated 75 percent of Americans had a primary care provider — down from 77 percent in 2002,” per the news publication. “The declines were most pronounced among people under 60: For Americans in their 30s, for example, the figure dropped from 71 percent to 64 percent.”
I’m part of the 46 percent. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do. I know that’s not a question but I needed to get it off my chest.
I hear you. I, too, don’t have my own doctor. Thankfully, I have health insurance, but I’ve never used it to find out if the mere fact that I woke up today means I’ll wake up just the same tomorrow.
Let’s start at the top, then. Is a primary care physician the same thing as a personal doctor?
Yes. According to Healthline.com, “The term ‘primary care practitioner (PCP)’ refers to any of the following types of medical professionals: family medicine practitioner, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, internist, pediatrician, geriatrician.” Which is to say that your personal doctor is also likely to be your primary care physician.
Why do I even need a primary care physician? If things get bad, can’t I just go to urgent care or check myself into a hospital?
Yes, you can just rush yourself to urgent care if you feel like you may have the symptoms of the novel coronavirus. There are, however, several benefits to having your own doctor. First, it’s always good to have established some history with a person involved in keeping you healthy. According to Piedmont.org, “When you see the same doctor every time, that provider will get to know your health history, giving them the best lens into treatments you may need,” per its website. “And when you have a primary care physician, you always have somewhere to turn for medical advice.”
Not to mention that the same U.S. News report noted that a person who has a personal doctor is likely going to receive better care. In other words, in a time of global panic and hysteria, going to see a familiar face that you can trust is going to help you in the best way they can, as well as help alleviate some of the anxiety you feel about consulting a medical professional in the first place.
My mental state is fine just as long as I know that if I need to, I can still go to the ER.
I hear you, but consider this: ER doctors are also urging people who think they have symptoms of the virus to see their personal doctors instead. “They worry that ERs, which already are seeing increasing numbers of patients, will be flooded, that doctors won’t be able to take care of the seriously ill and that health-care workers might get infected,” reports The Washington Post. “‘When people recognize disease in community, they get nervous and go to the ER, but that may cause a lot of strain on resources,’ said William Jaquis, an emergency medicine doctor at a hospital in Aventura, Fla., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.”
Plus, said ER doctor is likely to send you home if your symptoms aren’t dire, since they currently are unlikely to have any way to test for the novel coronavirus.
Well, shit. Now I’m worried. This is embarrassing, but I’m not sure if I even have insurance anymore. Let’s say I don’t, can I still track down a doctor that will see me?
You have nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, you’re one of the 44 million Americans who don’t have health insurance. Which has less to do with you as an individual as it does with the fact that when people talk about human rights in this country, they’re only talking about people who can afford human rights.
But I digress. If you don’t have insurance, you can still see a medical professional that isn’t necessarily located inside a hospital or urgent care facility. Start by visiting Healthcare.gov, which offers a search tool for locating “low-cost health care in your community.”
With regard to your lack of insurance, in 2017, Sonya Huber, a Teen Vogue writer, reported on how to see a doctor if you don’t have health insurance. She suggested immediately telling the doctor’s office that you contact that you don’t have health insurance. “Then ask, ‘Are there programs to help me with the cost of medications or my care?’” wrote Huber. “During my own, long bout without insurance, I quickly learned that most doctors, nurses, physician assistants and just about everyone else in the medical field actually wants to provide health care. They are not judging you.”
Other suggestions, per PlushCare.com, include asking if the clinic or doctor’s office you find has a sliding scale that matches your medical bills to your income. “You can also ask for generic medications, charity-care options or if they have discounts for patients paying cash (paying with cash can reduce the cost by as much as 90 percent),” the site recommends. All of which is sound advice, while also revealing the glaring inequities in the current for-profit medical system. But again, that’s for another day.
Okay, it turns out I do have health insurance, so now what are my options?
That’s great news. But while having health insurance makes it far easier and less expensive to get yourself a doctor, it does make it slightly more complicated. The first thing you need to do is figure out which doctors in your surrounding area are in your health-care provider’s network. According to Blue Cross Blue Shield’s website, one of the myriad insurance companies making money off of your mortality, “most health plans have negotiated special, discounted rates with certain doctors and hospitals in your area, and you will pay less out-of-pocket for visiting those doctors, who are called ‘in-network’ for insurance purposes.”
“Ensuring that you select an ‘in-network’ doctor will help you avoid a surprise ‘out-of-network’ charge or having to pay in full out-of-pocket because the doctor you’ve selected doesn’t accept your insurance plan,” the site continues.
Once you’ve located an in-network medical professional, contact them, give them your insurance information and let them know that while you’re not showing symptoms today, in the case that you feel like you have symptoms of the coronavirus, you’ll reach out to them to set up an appointment.
That seems easy enough. How do I find out which doctor is the best doctor for me?
There are a couple of things to consider. One, logistically speaking, is how far away the doctor in your network is, since you’ll want to find a doctor’s office that’s convenient to visit. “You’ll also want to consider office hours — what days and times does the doctor see patients?” per the Blue Shield Blue Cross website. “Will you need to take time off work to visit the office, or can you go after work or on weekends? It’s also a good idea to check what hospital the doctor admits patients to.”
Another thing to consider is whether or not the doctor you’ve chosen speaks the same language that you do. In most cases they will speak English, however, if English isn’t your first language, you may want to find a doctor who speaks the language you feel most comfortable communicating in. Using hand signals at this uncertain time is only going to make things more difficult.
What if none of the primary care physicians near me are taking new patients?
I wish I could tell you that if you’re desperate for medical care that any doctor’s office you call will see you, or at the very least refer you to a different physician. That’s, however, simply not true. In fact, according to research released by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2017 (by way of U.S. News), “the estimated shortage [of primary care physicians] will be between 8,700 and 43,100 physicians by 2030.” U.S. News notes that the American Academy of Family Physicians even suggested that “as many as 127,617 deaths per year in the United states could be averted through an increase in the number of primary care physicians available.” So, yeah, that’s not great (especially since those numbers didn’t take into consideration a crisis of this magnitude).
Still, there are some workarounds. In that U.S. News article, Michael Munger, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, recommended contacting your local medical society: “Many will have a directory of physicians, and many times, that’s your best source to help get directed to who’s accepting new patients.” You could also contact your insurance provider directly, and they, too, will be able to direct you toward a list of nearby medical professionals accepting new patients.
The other alternative is to consider the option of seeing a doctor from the safety of your own home. Last week, WIRED reported that due to the surge in patients who need to see a medical professional, “telemedicine is emerging as a possible filter, keeping those with moderate symptoms at home while routing more severe cases to hospitals.” This method of seeking medical help is the same approach that the Chinese have taken to mitigate the strain on hospitals during this outbreak. “U.S.-based companies such as Teladoc, AmWell and Buoy are quickly following China’s lead and are offering similar screening and video visit services,” reports HealthAffairs.org. “AmWell noted that its patient traffic increased by more than 11 percent in the early days of the U.S. outbreak.”
Basically, they’re expecting your call.
Speaking of that, I’m going to call a few places now. Any other suggestions?
Not really, other than making sure you do in fact call them. The current medical system — especially ERs, hospitals and urgent care facilities — are under major pressure right now and anything you can do to help alleviate that pressure will go a long way in making sure the most serious cases get the treatment they so desperately need.