Choosing a long-term primary care physician is one of the most important decisions you'll make for your health. Finding the right one, however, is a difficult and sometimes overwhelming task. But by establishing and understanding your needs and using them to evaluate your experience with a new practice, you can make a decision that will grant you comfort and effective care for years.
Types of Primary Care Physicians
Choosing your primary care physician starts with determining what kind of practice you need:
Family Medicine: A doctor who can diagnose conditions in both adults and children, and is uniquely trained in caring for people over the course of their lives. If you would like your family to go to the same doctor, this may be the option for you.
Internal Medicine: An internist specializes in diagnosing, preventing, and treating conditions in adults.
Geriatric Medicine: A doctor who specializes in conditions facing elderly patients.
Pediatric Medicine: A pediatrician specializes in treating infants and children.
Nurse Practitioner or Physician's Assistant: If you go to a larger practice, you may develop a relationship with a nurse or other provider who has received additional training in diagnosing and treating conditions a doctor can expect to see.
Practical Factors in Your Decision
There are many logistical and financial questions you have to ask while choosing the right practice for you. Determining these before committing to a practice can save you many headaches before they occur:
Insurance: Is the practice in your network?
Availability: Do the office hours fit your schedule? Can you reliably schedule visits in a reasonable timeframe? How reasonable is the wait time at a visit?
Patient Resources: Does the practice have an online portal for billing and scheduling? Does it have a nurse line to call for advice? Do they meet your language needs?
Distance: How far is the practice from your home and workplace? Will you have reliable transportation there?
Hospital Affiliations: Is your practitioner affiliated with a nearby hospital whose services you may require?
Provider Quality & Reputation: This will require some level of research, but it's always worth it. It's easier than ever to learn about the history of a medical provider. Things to look for and verify include:
- State License
- Board Certification and Affiliations
- Medical School and Residencies
- Length of Practice
- Patient Reviews
Published Medical Scholarship or Research: if available, this may allow you to understand a physician's opinions regarding medical conditions or prescription drugs that are relevant to you.
- Disciplinary Actions and Malpractice Charges
Social Media Behavior: this can help you understand a doctor's personality before even meeting them.
Personal Factors in Your Decision
Even a qualified and experienced doctor might not meet all of your needs. Not every medical practitioner and patient are well-matched, and when choosing a long-term care provider you want to find the perfect fit.
Gender: You may be more comfortable with a doctor who shares your gender identity and may have unique insight into health problems unique to your gender.
Age: You may be more comfortable with a doctor of a similar age who may have unique insight into medical conditions faced by your age group. Alternately, you may be interested in a doctor with more recent medical school experience and schooling in the latest medical technology. A physician's age may also indicate nearness to retirement or how likely they are to remain in their current practice.
Cultural Background and Belief System: You may have a cultural or religious background that impacts your medical needs, and require a doctor who understands this background.
Experience Level: It's not just about length of experience. Even General Practitioners may have avenues of exceptional experience that match your health needs. A primarily with particular experience (possibly even including published research or scholarship) with your medical conditions can be invaluable.
Personality and Attitude: This is a major and sometimes overlooked facet of finding the right primary care physician, and it's one that takes firsthand experience. You want to be able to feel comfortable in a practice, with both your doctor and staff at all levels. It can be easy to feel intimidated by a new practice, and that can make some people less sure of their judgments. But your experiences and your feelings belong to you -- if you have to take some time after your visit to honestly consider how you felt, take that time. These questions may help:
- Was the atmosphere welcoming and comforting?
- Did I feel respected? Was I listened to? Were my concerns taken into account?
- What was the doctor's demeanor? Were they friendly? Difficult?
- Did the physician's view of my medical history show knowledge or experience with any relevant conditions? Did their take on these conditions differ from mine?
- Was I comfortable with suggested treatments and medications? Did the physician acknowledge and understand my comfort level when prescribing treatments?
It's important to remember that not every friendly doctor is competent, and not every competent doctor has great people skills. But everyone has expectations that their practitioner must meet in order to build a healthy and satisfactory care relationship. If you establish for yourself what you need from a doctor and what you're willing to accept, your experience at a practice will be much easier to evaluate effectively.