So Now You Have Health Care. Time To Find A Doctor

May 28, 2014

"Nolan the Colon" is featured at the annual Latina Health Fair in South Park. Residents can drop in for health screenings and get health information.
"Nolan the Colon" is featured at the annual Latina Health Fair in South Park. Residents can drop in for health screenings and get health information.
Credit KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

You may have heard of financial literacy or media literacy. But what about health literacy: Are you able to get and understand basic health information?

More people have access to health care; the next step is using it. There’s a big push to help people make the most of their health coverage. For many, the first step is choosing a primary care doctor.

Matt Lane, 22, had always been covered under his mother’s health plan.

Now he’s married and has his own health insurance. When it came time to choose a doctor, he had no preferences. But his wife, who is Chinese, wanted a doctor who could speak her native tongue.

“We chose a doctor who speaks Mandarin so it makes it a lot easier for her,” he said.

Choosing a doctor is personal. Some people decide based on the doctor’s training or philosophy of care. And those factors are important, but another thing to consider is the doctor’s team, said Dr. Matt Handley, medical director at Group Health.

“Whether it’s a physician assistant or a partner doctor, what are their arrangements for after-hours care for the clinic? What are the options to talk to your doctor, or nurse 24/7?” Handley said.

Handley said it’s also good to know whether the clinic has a secure website that allows patients to ask questions or access medical records.

That’s one feature Lane liked. His wife recently received a prescription from her doctor at Group Health.

“An hour after her appointment, it was already in her system and it had instructions on how to take it and information about it,” he said. “That was a pretty good feeling.”

Once you pick a doctor, schedule a check-up, Handley said – don’t wait for an emergency. “I think the ideal thing is to meet when the tyranny of the urgent doesn’t overwhelm all other things.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, health benefits now include prevention and wellness services. Handley said doctors should be viewed as a patient’s partner in health.

But for some, simply obtaining basic information to make important health decisions can be a challenge. At a recent health fair in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, people could drop in and get their cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels checked. The event  focused on the Latino community.

Rudy Vasquez, operations director for Sea Mar Community Health Centers, which hosts the annual fair, said cultural barriers have discouraged people from getting care.

“The only time you went to a doctor was when you were really ill,” he said.

Vasquez said that’s because most of the time, people couldn’t afford health care.

He understands that all too well. When he was young, his family knew going to the doctor was costly. So he’s been conditioned to live with pain since an early age.

“Even as I’ve gotten older, I sit there going, ‘Wow, my pain tolerance is pretty high,’ and I keep putting off the doctor,” he said.

Vasquez said that some old habits are hard to shake.

“I have to work on it constantly,” he said. “I’m assuming a lot of population groups, especially those who are raised in very limited incomes, are doing the same thing.”

Health care providers at Sea Mar are trying to change that thinking to help people understand the advantages of establishing care with a provider.

One of those benefits is reducing their risk for diabetes and asthma – two major health issues that are prevalent in the Hispanic community. Vasquez said it’s not enough that people have access to coverage; they need to know how to use it, too.

“One of the next steps we’re engaging in is trying to identify those individuals who’ve enrolled to ensure they’re getting checked before it moves to a crisis and they end up in the ER or the hospital,” he said.