photo of doctor taking notes during patient exam

Older people can face a lot of challenges when they need to see a doctor or go to a hospital. Your primary care doctor can guide you through the sometimes confusing health care system, acting as a first responder, detective, partner, and advocate to keep you healthy.

Doctors can be specialists in more than 100 different fields, with skills in treating specific diseases in every organ of your body. For instance, you or a loved one may need a cardiologist for heart problems, an endocrinologist to treat diabetes, or an orthopedist for a knee or hip replacement. A primary care doctor focuses on you as a whole instead of one specific area. 

What Does a Primary Care Doctor Do for Older Adults? 

Your primary care doctor, sometimes known as your family doctor, can stay on top of all those ongoing conditions and create a game plan with your other doctors, caregivers, and therapists. They can also work with you to decide on the goals for your long-term health and well-being.

Primary care providers (PCPs) are doctors who can treat you throughout your life. They may even have a long-term, trusting relationship with several generations of a family. Older adults reach out to their primary doctor for routine health care needs. And they are usually the first call you make when something just isn’t feeling right. Some of the services they provide include:

  • Annual checkups
  • Preventive care 
  • Blood tests
  • Vaccines, like yearly flu shots
  • Diagnosing and managing chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes 

What Can I Expect in My Annual Physical Exam?

A thorough physical exam is a head-to-toe checkup of your body and a quick, skillful evaluation of your mental and emotional well-being. This checkup, usually once a year, is also an important time to share your questions and concerns.

The doctor will measure vital signs such as:

  • Temperature
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Examine your eyes, ears, nose, and throat
  • Look at your skin for lesions or anything abnormal
  • Examine your body to check for lumps or changes 
  • Check your reflexes
  • Use a stethoscope to listen to your heart, lungs, and bowels 

Better Care, Better Health, Lower Costs 

An open and honest relationship with your primary care doctor can keep you healthier. People who regularly see this important caregiver also have lower health care costs. Many of these doctors focus a lot on preventive care, so some problems can be detected and treated before they become serious.

When you have an annual exam, your primary care doctor may:

  • Find conditions that need treatment
  • Find you have risk factors for a disease
  • Advise you when to get follow-up and preventive care

And there are important diagnoses that don’t involve a test or an X-ray, but more a knowledge of what is “normal” for you. Your doctor also knows that personal issues such as a social or economic crisis can affect your health. 

Finding a Primary Caregiver Wherever You Are

When you’re sick, you want to feel better quickly. You can often reach out to primary caregivers in many different physical settings, whether that is a doctor’s office, within a hospital, a long-term care facility, in your own home, via a video call (telemedicine), or in a community setting, like a public health clinic. 

Communication Is Key 

Being comfortable talking with your doctor may be one of the most important ways you can stay healthy. If your doctor knows your habits, your values, and your family situation, they can help you make decisions about your care, whether they are simple or serious. 

Your primary care doctor may be a geriatrician, a doctor who specializes in older people. Many family practice doctors and internists also have long-term relationships with those over 65. Whatever your doctor’s background, it’s important to make your needs and preferences known. The doctor-patient relationship is a two-way street.

For instance, if you don’t understand what your doctor is saying, say so. Ask them to explain in simpler terms. Have the doctor write down any new diagnoses or treatments, or record your conversation on your phone so you can refer back to it. 

Consider taking a relative or close friend with you to your appointment. Let the doctor know if you want your family involved in your medical decisions.

Find out if you can call or email the doctor’s staff with follow-up questions or if telemedicine (a video call) is an option.

If you leave appointments confused and frustrated, don’t be afraid to find another doctor. Different people have different needs; you won’t hurt the doctor’s feelings. 

Are You Getting All the Help That’s Available? 

The health care system is vast. Your primary care doctor and their team can also help you navigate some complicated health care and insurance problems. 

People over 65 often get advice to stay active, to eat a balanced diet, and do what it takes to stay healthy.  A routine physical exam and good relationship with a primary care doctor should also be part of that plan.

Primary Care Doctors Can Guide Older People to Additional Resources

As an older person, your healthiest future may include help from medical services and agencies that you might not even know about.

Your primary care doctor needs to be at the center of coordinating all your treatment. But that goes beyond just office visits. Their team can also guide you to other professionals who can deliver care right in your own home. Many of these services are available through Medicare and other insurance plans. 

If you’re coping with ongoing diseases like arthritis, diabetes, or chronic heart failure, you know the pain that comes with just getting dressed and getting to and from a clinic. And there’s more stress if you need to ask a family member to take off work to go with you. 

Primary care doctors know about the many physical and emotional challenges their patients face, and some are redesigning their practices to include some treatments at home, especially for older people with chronic disease and limited mobility. This combination of treatments can help you get better and help control costs for everyone. 

Nurses, therapists, social workers, personal caregivers, and nutritionists may all be part of the supportive role of these home health services. Not everyone is eligible for these programs, but check with your primary care doctor to find out. Your doctor needs to be able to measure and monitor this care to make sure you are benefiting from it. Technologies such as medical monitoring devices can help with that ongoing oversight. 

Show Sources

Photo Credit: Charday Penn / Getty Images


St. George’s University School of Medicine: “What Does a Primary Care Physician Do? Exploring This In-Demand Medical Career.”

American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine: “What is a primary care physician and what do they do?”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Primary Care.”

National Institute on Aging: “How to Choose a Doctor You Can Talk To.”

Choosing Wisely: “Health Checkups When you need them--and when you don’t.”

Dignity Health: “What Is a Physical Exam and What Can You Expect?”

National Library of Medicine: “An emerging model of primary care for older adults: the house call-home care practice.”

Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine: “Bringing home the ‘medical home’ for older adults.”