Where to Go When You Don't Have a PCP

If you’re an adult who does everything you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, then surely you have a primary care physician in your phone’s contacts. You’ve met this person, seen them for well visits, and they have all your medical records so you can call them and get prescriptions and advice at a moment’s notice.

This article is for the rest of us.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, you can still get the care you need if you know where to look. Here are your options and what each one is good for.

Your Insurance Provider’s Helpline

This depends on your plan, but many insurance providers have a phone number or service that will connect you to a nurse for simple questions. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield notes that they can answer questions about symptoms, medications, and home treatments, and they can help you figure out when you actually need to head in for a visit. Other providers’ nurselines are similar, and usually available 24 hours a day.

Video Visits

If you don’t need a hands-on exam, video visits are a handy way to get advice and prescriptions without leaving your bed. They’re ideal for things like mild coughs and colds, allergies, urinary tract infections, and allergies. In each of those cases, symptoms are straightforward, your history of symptoms tells most of the story, and the treatment is likely to be a medication they can call in (like antibiotics or allergy medicine) or just advice on how to ride out your symptoms.

Pharmacies

Besides filling prescriptions, pharmacists can help with some other common health-related tasks. They can answer questions about medications, of course (even over-the-counter ones).

You can also get routine vaccinations at many pharmacies. Not just your flu shot (you’re getting that every year, right?) but also other routine vaccines like those for chickenpox, tetanus, and whooping cough.

For some medications, in some states, pharmacists can dispense prescription medication even if you don’t have a doctor’s prescription. (The legal details vary, but often they have a standing order from a doctor to dispense the medication to people who meet certain criteria.) Birth control and the opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone, can be prescribed this way.

Mail-Order Services

For medications where you just need a refill, but a doctor needs to prescribe it, check out services like Nurx and Lemonaid. This is especially handy if you don’t have refills left of your birth control, but aren’t due for a checkup.

Urgent Care

If you need to see a provider in person, look for an urgent care facility. These are set up for minor illnesses and injuries where you’re not having an emergency, you just need to be seen soon-ish. You’ll usually get quicker and cheaper care here than if you go to a hospital emergency room.

There are chains of standalone urgent cares like MedExpress, but you may prefer an urgent care that’s associated with a hospital or a suite of doctor’s offices. These can often be better about connecting you with other facilities or providers—sometimes you can get blood drawn down the hall instead of going to a lab somewhere else, and they may be able to connect you with a PCP for follow-up care.

Specialists

You don’t always have to go through a primary care doctor to get to a specialist, although you should check with your insurance to be sure. (Some plans require you to have a PCP, and for that person to write referrals before you go anywhere else.)

If you know for sure what kind of specialist care you need, and your insurance allows it, it’s okay to go right to that person. If you’re pregnant, head straight to the ob/gyn, for example. In large health systems, you can also call up the relevant number at your local health system and ask to make an appointment with the type of specialist you need (for example, ask for “an allergist”)—they’ll help you figure out who is available.

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