Who knows you best? Your spouse? Son or daughter? Best friend? If your primary care doctor doesn’t make the list, you could be missing out on one of the most important relationships when it comes to your health and well-being.
Your primary care doctor may be more than just a doctor. Over time, he or she may learn the nuances of your medical history, your response to medications, your personality, your lifestyle and your treatment preferences.
That intimate knowledge can make a big difference to your health. Studies show that when people’s access to primary care doctors improves, their risk of dying of cancer, heart disease and strokes declines.1
What is a primary care physician (PCP)?
A primary care doctor (primary care physician, PCP), is a doctor that practices general medicine. PCPs help with your health including preventative care, routine physicals and screenings, annual shots, diagnosing and managing chronic conditions, and general minor illnesses or injuries.
There are five different kinds of primary care doctors, each with a different background and area of focus.
- Family medicine doctor: Doctors that can provide health care for your whole family and act as one-stop-resource for treating a variety of needs and services for babies, children and adults.
- Internal medicine doctor: Doctors that care for adults only and focus on treating issues that primarily affect adults such as high blood pressure.
- Internal medicine-pediatrics doctor: Dual certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics, these physicians can care for both kids and adults and help with balancing regular preventative care needs with specialized care needs.
- Pediatrician: Physicians that specialize in child health care from birth through early adulthood and are experts in developmental milestones, routine care, and treating minor illnesses and injuries.
- OB-GYN (obstetrics and gynecology): Experts in women’s health that help with family planning, pregnancy, menopause, and preventative screenings like mammograms and Pap smears.
Tips for choosing your primary care doctor
Here are 10 tips on how to choose a primary care doctor.
1. Ask around
The first step to finding a great doctor is to talk to your family and friends about their great doctors. A recommendation from someone you trust is a great way to identify a doctor you may want to consider. But remember, each person is different. Just because your neighbor or your best friend loves their doctor doesn’t mean that the same doctor is right for you.
If you are moving to a new location, you may ask your current provider for a recommendation.
2. Map it out
Since you’ll be visiting your primary care doctor for everyday health needs, it’s important that he or she be located somewhere convenient to you. You won’t want to travel very far when you’re not feeling well. And if your doctor’s office is conveniently located, you may be more inclined to keep appointments for physicals and other preventive care when you’re healthy.
3. Make sure you've got coverage
Once you’ve identified some possible candidates, check whether they work with your Medicare coverage. If you have Original Medicare, call the doctor’s office and ask if he or she accepts Medicare patients. If you have a Medicare Advantage (Part C) plan, call your insurance provider or check your plan’s website to see if the doctor is in the plan’s provider network. Plans may charge more if you see a doctor outside the network, and some won’t cover out-of-network care at all, so it’s important to take this step before scheduling an appointment.
4. 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 doctor without doing the same?
You can use the Physician Compare tool on Medicare.gov to see if your doctor has participated in any activities that indicate he or she provides high-quality care. You may also check to see whether your doctor is board-certified through the Certification Matters site, which the American Board of Medical Specialties maintains. Board-certified primary care doctors have not only met the licensing requirements of their states, but also passed comprehensive exams in internal medicine. Doctors also have to keep up with the latest developments in their fields to maintain their certification.
5. Call or visit your potential doctor's office
Want to get an idea of what a doctor is like before making an appointment? Call a potential doctor’s office for a good first impression.
6. Ask about logistics
When you call, ask about office practices to get a sense of how the medical practice runs.
- How does the office handle prescription refills?
- How do they let you know about test results?
- Can you email your doctor or schedule appointments online?
- Will the office call to remind you if you’re overdue for an annual screening or a flu shot?
- Is virtual care or a nurse line service available?
- Is there parking, or is it close to local public transit?
- Which hospital(s) does the doctor use?
- What days and times does the doctor see patients?
- How long do patients typically wait for appointments?
- Can you make same and next-day appointments for urgent matters?
- Do they have expertise treating your condition(s)?
Some patients also ask for quick in-person conversations before making an appointment. Not all doctors will be able to accommodate such requests, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if this is something you’d like to do.
7. Keep your needs in mind
Every person has unique health care needs, and those needs change as people age. Ask your doctor about his or her specialties or areas of interest to make sure they match with what you really need. For example, some primary doctors may focus on sports medicine, which is great, but if you’re not a serious athlete, this may not be the right choice.
And if you have multiple complex medical issues, you may benefit from seeing a geriatrician. Geriatricians specialize in the care of older patients.
8. Get to know the doctor
At the first visit, it’s important to make sure your doctor’s philosophy of care lines up with your own. Consider asking questions such as:
- Why did the doctor decide to go into primary care?
- What is his or her favorite thing about being a doctor?
- What does he or she wish more patients would do after they leave his or her office?
If your doctor’s outlook on patient care meshes nicely with your preferences, you may be more likely to follow his or her recommendations in between appointments. So take this into consideration when deciding whether to stick with a doctor following your first appointment.
9. Avoid culture shock
Every culture has its own customs, ideas and taboos about medical care, so it’s important to find a doctor who not only speaks your language but who is also sensitive to your cultural and religious convictions.
You should feel comfortable with whatever doctor you choose on a physical, emotional and psychological level.
10. Trust your gut
Your primary care doctor is going to help solve problems and be an important advocate for your health. It’s critical that you trust him or her and feel comfortable asking questions.
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends2 that after your first appointment, you ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel at ease with this doctor?
- Did you have enough time to ask questions?
- Did he or she answer all your questions?
- Did he or she explain things in a way you understood?
If something seems off, trust your instincts and look for a new doctor. Again, you should feel comfortable with your primary care physician.
Choosing a primary care physician is a personal choice, so keep these 10 tips in mind.
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