7 tips for choosing a primary care doctor

How well does your primary care provider know you? Do they see you at least once a year? Maybe during these last few years, when health has been at the forefront, you renewed your efforts to see this critical caretaker more regularly.

Regardless, if you don’t have a primary care provider, you could be missing out on one of the most important relationships when it comes to your health and well-being.

A primary care provider is more than just a provider. Over time, he or she learns the nuances of your medical history, your reaction to medications, your health goals, your lifestyle, your treatment preferences and whether or not a caregiver is supporting you in managing your health.

That intimate knowledge can help make a big difference to your health. Studies show that people with primary care providers are more likely to get preventive services, including cancer screenings, and report significantly better overall health outcomes.

“Primary care providers help you move through the continuum of life,” said Dr. Philip Painter, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. “As we get older, our needs change and our functional ability changes. It’s nice to have someone who knows you guide you through the health care system as that happens.”

Dr. Painter provides the following seven tips to help you choose the right primary care provider for you.

1. Ask around

The first step to finding a great provider: Talk to your family and friends about their provider. A recommendation from someone you trust is a good way to identify a highly skilled, helpful physician. But remember: Every person is different. Just because a provider was perfect for your neighbor or your best friend doesn’t mean that they are right for you.

2. Make sure you've got coverage

Once you’ve identified some possible candidates, check whether they work with your health plan. If you have traditional Medicare, call the provider’s office and ask if they accept Medicare patients. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, call your insurance provider or check your plan’s website to see if the provider is in your plan’s network. Most plans charge more if you see a provider outside the network, so it’s important to take this step before scheduling an appointment.

3. Do a quality check

Chances are you wouldn’t hire someone to make repairs in your home without doing a little research into the quality of their work. So why would you choose a provider without doing the same?

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, check with your insurance company to see if they have any information about the quality ratings of specific primary care providers in your network. You can also use the Physician Compare tool on Medicare.gov to see if your provider has participated in any activities that indicate they provide high-quality care.

Finally, check to see whether your provider is board-certified through the Certification Matters site, which the American Board of Medical Specialties maintains. Board-certified primary care providers have not only met the licensing requirements of their states, but also passed comprehensive exams in internal medicine. Providers also have to keep up with the latest developments in their fields to maintain their certification, so you can be sure they’re giving you up-to-date advice.

4. Place a cold call

Dr. Painter advises that patients call a potential provider’s office for a first impression of the practice.

“You can tell a lot by the phone etiquette of the office staff,” Dr. Painter said. “Ask if they’re taking new patients and see how they answer. If they say, ‘The next appointment is in 90 days, have a great day,’ that’s a lot different than saying, ‘He’s really busy, and we always make time for existing patients, so it might take us some time to fit a new patient in.’”

5. Ask about logistics … and whether they are set up for virtual appointments

Asking questions during that initial call can provide a sense of how the office runs. How does the office handle prescription refills? How do they let you know about test results? Can you email your provider or schedule appointments online? Will the office call to remind you if you’re overdue for an annual screening or a flu shot?

You might also ask whether they offer same-day appointments and how long patients typically sit in the waiting room for an appointment.

And now that virtual visits are becoming more common, ask whether the provider conducts this type of visit, and how easy it is to schedule a virtual appointment.

6. Keep your needs in mind

Every person has unique health needs, and those needs change as people age. Ask your provider about their specialties or areas of interest.

For example, a physician who specializes in sports medicine may not be the best choice if you are not a serious athlete. But if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, you may want to look for a provider with a special interest in diabetes care or a large number of patients with diabetes in their practice. Those are things to ask when you make that first call or do your research.

And if you have multiple complex medical issues, you may benefit from seeing a geriatrician. Geriatricians specialize in the care of older patients.

7. Trust your gut

Your primary care provider is going to be a problem-solver and an important advocate for your health. It’s critical that you trust them and feel comfortable asking questions.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that after your first appointment, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel at ease with this provider?
  • Did the provider show an interest in getting to know you?
  • Did they answer all your questions?
  • Did they explain things in a way you understood?

If something seems off, trust your instincts and look for a new provider who is a better fit. You should be comfortable with whomever you choose.

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