In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Vancarlus Tennison, a community health worker in Fort Worth, discusses the importance of finding — and keeping — a primary care doctor.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: So Van, what is a primary care doctor?

Vancarlus Tennison: They’re a doctor that you can see to manage medications, prevent and control illness, manage your specialists and your referrals, follow up with you after visiting the emergency room or being hospitalized. They include services like diabetes management, cancer screenings, diagnosis and treatment of acute injuries, and sickness and manage long-term conditions.

Allison: What are the different types of primary care doctors?

Tennison: There are some doctors that treat children — pediatricians. There are adult doctors, there are geriatric clinicians as well. And sometimes the OB-GYNs can function as a primary care doctor for women. 

Nurse practitioners, physician assistants, they are also part of the primary care health team. A lot of folks are like, “Oh, I just want to see the M.D.,” but these guys are able to manage your health care conditions. And yes, the M.D. does sometimes have to sign off on things that they have. But, don’t let the name “nurse” or “assistant” steer you away from these highly trained providers.

Allison: Why have a primary care physician?

Tennison: Your primary care physician is the first person in line that you want to call if you have a health-related concern. If you’re sick, you have a high fever, you have ear pain, belly pain, you want to call that primary care doctor, and some folks kind of steer away: “Oh, my primary care is busy, they’re not going to get to me,” not realizing that there are triage nurses in place. And the word “triage,” that’s just a fancy word for prioritizing — getting folks in to be addressed for their health concerns. The triage nurse will take your concerns, and then they can direct you when to go to the emergency room, or when to go to an urgent care facility or come in for an office visit, because that physician may have time set aside for urgent cases to come to the office. So, when you’re in doubt, call the PCP. And, sometimes the PCP has weekends, night availability. 

What’s the difference between primary care, urgent care and the emergency room?

In a nutshell: Primary care helps patients manage long-term or chronic conditions like diabetes. An urgent care is for minor illness or injury that requires immediate attention, like an earache or urinary tract infection. An emergency room, on the other hand, is for life-threatening illness or injury like gunshot wounds or chest pain. 

Sources: Vancarlus Tennison, Mayo Clinic, Texas Urgent Care]

Allison: What if someone doesn’t have a primary care physician? How would you advise them to find one?

Tennison: If they have insurance, the first step would be looking on the back of the insurance card and calling the customer service number. That’s one way. Word of mouth is the best way. Check in with your neighbors. Check with friends at your church and see who they see and see how long they’ve been seeing them and how satisfied they are with that particular person. And you can also Google and do reviews, but the biggest thing is checking with your insurance plan and making sure that doctor is in network.

If you don’t have insurance, you can definitely check out your county hospitals, such as (John Peter Smith Hospital). 

Allison: How would you advise people to develop a strong relationship with their primary care physician? What does that look like?

Tennison: I always tell people, “Be a boy scout. Be prepared for your appointment.” I recently got a little upset with my uncle. He walked out of an assisted living facility. And I said, “Where’s your med list”? And he looked at me. I said, “You’re at an assisted living facility, and they give you medications daily. So you need to update your doctors on your medication list. So, bring your pill bottles, bring any medicines that you’re taking.” 

Also, if you had been discharged from the emergency room or had a hospital, say, bring that paperwork. Report any new symptoms you want to discuss, and explain how any current treatment is affecting your daily life. And then, if you’re having any side effects with your medications, you can always ask your doctor. Do you need any vaccines, such as tetanus or COVID-19 or flu or pneumonia? Again, just try to prepare yourself. 

And of course, prioritize your health issues to discuss. If you have to bring a companion, go ahead and bring someone. The big thing is be honest with your physician, and then make sure you understand the plan. We call this a “teach back,” where we talk to the patient, we give the patient the commands of what to do, and then we ask the patient to regurgitate that back to us by explaining it. So do a teach back to the doctor. (If they’re) using large and fancy words, don’t feel that you’re not intelligent. Ask them, “Hey, can you just explain it to me in plain English?” and they’ll be more than happy to do that.

And of course, the super big, important thing to do is follow up on your care plan. Be that squeaky wheel. That squeaky wheel is the one that’s going to get the oil.

Allison: Do you have any best practices when it comes to keeping your health information together? 

Tennison: Luckily, we have the portals that keep up with everything. So if you have some tech savviness, you can manage your paperwork through the patient portals. You can ask your physician, “Hey, do you have a patient portal? I’d like to be part of that.” That is a great way of keeping things organized and up to date. And then not only does that save you time, but that saves the office time as well when they have to reconcile your medication. So that was the biggest thing for me personally.

I encourage our patients to use Google Keep and take pictures of your forms, take pictures of your pill bottles and keep it in a folder in your Google Keep so that way you can have access to it. Also, know your usernames and passwords. Keep that in your Keep as well. If you have access to that patient portal and can retrieve those records, that is quite beneficial to us.

Allison: Thanks for these tips, Van. Do you have anything else that you’d like to share? 

Tennison: I really, strongly encourage folks to build a strong, lasting relationship with your primary care doctor. 

It may take you a little while to find that doctor that meets your needs. Sometimes you can go to a primary care doctor and they may not have the customer service to meet your needs. Again, talk to friends, talk to family, church members, find that primary care doctor that fits your needs and stay with them. I’ve been with my primary care doctor for well over 15 years. I mean, he knows me really well. We built a rapport and a relationship. And when you don’t have that rapport and relationship with that primary care doctor, it makes things a little bit more difficult.

Allison: If there’s anything else you’d like to add, please do.

Tennison: Health care has gone multidisciplinary, meaning it’s not just the primary care doctor that you’re gonna see. If you have social needs, then (the primary care doctor) may have someone in the office like me, a community health care worker. The medical assistants do a really great job at getting out social services, and they may even have a social worker in their office. In the office I work at, we even have a food pantry. So instead of going to the emergency room, if you build that relationship with your primary care doctor, they may have other resources that you may not have been aware of, such as housing and things that will help you out in the community, maybe helping you pay a light bill or maybe even help you with rent assistance and things of that nature. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....