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The Young and the Doctorless: The Importance of Having a Primary Care Doctor

A 2011 poll by the American Academy of Family Physicians showed that 66 out of 100 young adults ages 18-26 have “a usual source” of medical care, most often a family physician. So what’s wrong with my kid?

That’s what I’m thinking as I sit in my car after dropping my 24-year-old son at the airport. He’s heading back to his job and life three thousand miles away. As he disappears into the terminal, I’m hoping two things: One, that his plane arrives safely and two, that he doesn’t sit next to someone sloppy with sneezing from a vile illness.

I’m thinking about this second possibility because, even though my son has an excellent health plan, he’s never bothered to find a primary care physician (PCP). That means there isn’t a doctor within three-thousand miles who knows him or has his medical records.

Since he doesn’t have help lined up, if he gets sick he’s more likely to try to wait things out. A minor illness could become more serious. You may think I’m being an alarmist imagining the worst, but I’m simply recalling what really happened when one of my nieces didn’t bother to find a primary care doctor.

Finding a Doctor Is a Primary Health Lesson for Young Adults

My niece had just moved to town after finishing college. She had a job teaching first grade. I was helping her unpack boxes when she mentioned that she wasn’t sure how to go about finding a doctor convenient to school. I suggested she start by asking other teachers for recommendations. Then she could check those recommendations online and set up an appointment to meet a doctor. (The links below will give you more information about how to choose a PCP.)

Then I added my own touch to encourage my niece to find a PCP: I painted a seriously bleak picture of what could happen if she didn’t. “If you get sick you could end up going to the emergency room where you’ll probably wait for hours surrounded by sick people with contagious illnesses you do not want to be near,” I warned. “The doctor will be a complete stranger. If you need follow-up treatment, you won’t have continuity in your care. And a trip to the ER is the most costly way to get medical treatment. So, finding a primary care doctor is just the right thing to do all around.”

My niece was totally onboard. Then she got busy with work – busy for a full year, until she got sick. Really sick. And she didn’t have a doctor, so she waited to get better, but she didn’t.

A Feverish Search for a Doctor

My niece’s voice crackled on the phone. “I’ve had a fever for 4 days. It goes between 102 and 104. I don’t have any other symptoms, but I feel horrible. I’m so sorry to call you, but I don’t know what to do.”

Maybe I should have taken her right to the emergency room, but for the past week, a wretched stomach flu had been tearing through the local population. A trip to the ER would mean sitting in a throng of nauseated people. This was the horrible possibility that was supposed to motivate her to get a doctor in the first place.  Now it was motivating me to find her a doctor.

We live in an area that’s full of doctors, and I learned that a whole lot of them have full practices that aren’t accepting new patients. A dozen calls later, I found a doctor who could see her the next day. There was no way my niece could have managed this effort in her condition. I made an appointment then did a quick online check to make sure I wasn’t taking her to a veterinarian. Sure, this was backwards, but we were in a pinch.

Next, I made a house call to dose the doctorless patient with popsicles and juice. She was throwing off more heat than the old radiator in her room, but she was stable and she was able to drink a lot of fluids. I made her promise that she’d ask her roommates to take her to the ER if she got worse during the night. Then, I went home to worry about this decision and torture myself by really imagining the worst. 

The next morning, I took the human furnace to the doctor, who turned out to be very kind and thorough. Diagnosis: kidney infection. That’s when my niece confessed that earlier in the week, she thought she might have had a urinary tract infection, which she tried to ward off with fluids. When she developed a fever, she didn’t go to the doctor because...well...she didn’t have one. And the rest, you know. After a few days of antibiotics, this young adult was better and now she had a doctor.

A Dose of Advice for the Young and Doctorless

When our kids become young adults, we’re done packing school lunches (hopefully), but we’re never done trying to pack in a little good advice when we can. If you know a young adult – or anyone -- who has a health plan, but no PCP or kind aunt, you can offer some good health advice by sharing the link to this blog. In fact, that’s exactly what I plan to do with my own young and still doctorless son.

Try these links for more information about finding a primary care doctor:

Choosing a Primary Care Doctor, National Institutes of Health
Tips to Help You Find a Good Doctor, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
How to Find a Doctor Online, CNN

Sherry Reisner is a freelance writer/producer who creates videos and Web content for Health Dialog’s award-winning library of patient Shared Decision Making® aids. While her professional skills are key to this work, she also draws deeply on her life experience as a mother, a caregiver to elderly parents, a hospice volunteer, and a living person who sometimes needs medical care herself and knows how challenging it can be.

Here are other posts you might be interested in:

Posted: 1/23/2012 8:30:00 AM with 0 comments
Filed under: Being a Smart Patient
Tagged with: why you need a primary care doctor, finding a primary care doctor
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