Your primary care physician is your go-to resource for your healthcare needs. They are there to advise you, educate you, examine you, treat you, and help you make some of the most important decisions you will ever make about your health and well-being.
That’s why it’s so important to find a doctor you can trust — someone you can talk to honestly and openly about your health. But how do you go about finding such an important partner when you’re looking at a long list of names on websites and in directories?
Finding the right doctor will require, first, that you articulate what is important to you in a doctor-patient relationship. Then, of course, there are practical considerations. Finally, a great deal will hinge on your face-to-face or over-the-phone conversation with the primary care provider you have selected.
Here are some questions to consider to help find the primary care physician that’s right for you.
If you have health insurance and you plan to choose an in-network doctor to keep your costs down, start by finding out which primary care physicians are covered by your plan in your area.
Your insurance plan may allow you to work with a primary care doctor who is out of network, but at a higher cost.
If you don’t have health insurance and will be paying out of pocket, you may want to talk to your prospective doctor about the cost of office visits. Knowing about costs before you need care could help you plan for future visits.
A note for Veterans
Finding the right PCP is important for Veterans, who often have unique healthcare needs. The Veterans Health Administration (VA) is a helpful resource for information, coverage, and guidance towards a qualified doctor.
One way to find a primary care physician you like is to ask for recommendations from people you trust. Your family, friends, and colleagues are excellent sources of information about doctors they like.
You can also turn to allied health professionals for their recommendations. Pharmacists, optometrists, dentists, physical therapists, and others in the healthcare field may be able to give you good information about the doctors you’re considering. Or, they may be able to offer other recommendations of doctors you should look at.
How far is the doctor’s practice from your home, school, or office? How easy will it be to find safe and inexpensive parking? If you’re planning to use public transportation, how long will the trip take?
Primary care practices are plentiful in some communities and scarce in others.
In areas without well-developed public transportation systems, access to primary care physicians could be severely restricted.
It’s a good idea to ask whether basic procedures like lab tests, x-rays, and minor surgeries are performed at the same facility as the doctor’s office.
Many primary care physicians can perform procedures like these in-office, but if you will have to travel from the doctor’s office to a lab or an imaging facility, you’ll need to find out if those facilities are easily accessible to you.
What are the hours the doctor’s practice is open? Are evening, weekend, or on-call services available? How long does it generally take to get in to see the doctor?
What about telemedicine — does this physician offer online advice or evaluations? Is there an online patient hub where you can make appointments, ask for prescription refills, complete forms, and communicate with the office?
Family doctors, pediatricians, internists, OB-GYNs, and geriatricians are all considered primary care providers.
If you want to work with a primary care doctor who is specially trained to deal with a particular demographic group or medical condition, you can check to see if the doctor is board-certified in that area.
Board certification is an extra step doctors can take to verify that they are experts in a particular field. The American Board of Medical Specialties maintains a searchable database of board-certified doctors called Certification Matters.
Medicare also offers a Physician Compare tool to help you find doctors who specialize in the kind of care you need.
If you are insured, your insurance company may also provide a ranking or rating system so you can easily locate doctors in your area who provide excellent care.
You’re going to engage with the office staff regularly. Making appointments and rescheduling them, resolving billing issues, asking for refills — many of your interactions with your primary care provider will be handled by these unsung heroes of the medical profession.
When you interact with the staff, are they courteous and patient? Do they respect your privacy, your name and pronoun choices, along with your other boundaries? Do they help to facilitate contact between you and the doctors?
Some doctors practice by themselves and some practice as part of a group. It’s important to know whether you will be seeing your primary care physician, another doctor in the group, a nurse practitioner, or a physician assistant when you come in.
The quality of your care may not be affected, but your overall satisfaction might decrease if you see someone other than your regular provider.
When you visit the office, take a look around. Is the waiting room clean, well kept, and relatively calm? Does the medical equipment appear to be modern and working well? Are the treatment rooms clean and private?
Having to wait a while in a doctor’s office is an almost universal human experience, so it’s important to be sure that the environment is pleasant.
A recent scientific survey found that the cleanliness and modernity of the practice had a big impact on patients’ overall satisfaction.
You are an individual. Your age, gender, life experiences, and medical conditions have all shaped the way you feel about your body, your health, and your interactions with healthcare providers.
As you think about what you need from your primary care physician, consider whether the doctor and the practice can accommodate your disabilities or any other special needs.
Do you experience anxiety or mistrust in medical settings because you have survived domestic abuse, sexual assault, sexual or physical abuse, racism, war, or trauma of another kind? Do you need a doctor who is informed about the special health challenges presented by being transgender or non-binary?
Keep these questions in mind when selecting a primary care provider and talk openly to a prospective doctor about their experience dealing with these kinds of challenges.
The most obvious consideration is whether the doctor literally speaks your language. If your first language or your doctor’s first language are not the same, can you understand one another?
If English isn’t your first language, consider looking for a primary care doctor who can converse with you easily and comfortably in your preferred language.
Beyond the language itself, consider the following when you meet with a primary care doctor for the first time:
- What is the doctor’s communication style?
- Did they take the time to listen to your questions and answer them patiently?
- Did you feel rushed?
- Did the doctor dismiss your concerns or interrupt you frequently?
- Did the doctor explain things to you in a way that you could understand?
- Would you feel comfortable talking to them about sensitive or personal health issues?
Thinking about these issues may help you prepare a list of questions and concerns to take with you to your first appointment.
If you are changing doctors, you will also want to request that your medical records be sent to your new doctor before your meeting. If that is not immediately possible, write down as much as you can recall about:
- any medical or surgical procedures you’ve had
- major illnesses and chronic conditions
- medications you’re currently taking
- your family’s health history
If you are used to thinking of doctors as authorities, it may feel awkward or uncomfortable to interview prospective doctors. It may make the process easier if you think of yourself as an equal partner working with the primary care physician to improve your overall health.
It may be difficult for you to trust medical professionals, especially if you have been mistreated or discriminated against in the past. It is okay if you have to try several primary care physicians before you find the right partner.
When you’re ready to find a primary care physician, ask around. People in your family, at your job, in your school, in the community, and even on social media can share their experiences with you.
Consider the practicalities such as:
- insurance coverage
- hours and availability
- access to telemedicine
- languages spoken
Also find out as much as you can about the doctor’s certifications, communication style, and ability to meet your special needs.
Once you have whittled down your list of candidates, make an appointment with the prospective provider to ask and answer questions.
Choosing the right provider may take time and effort, but the benefits of having a primary care physician you trust and feel comfortable with will be well worth it in the long run.