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How to Choose a Primary Care Doctor
Maybe you have moved or changed jobs. Maybe you are picking a doctor for the first time or your long-standing doctor has recently retired. Whatever your situation, choosing a doctor can be a complicated decision. How do you know which one is good? What questions should you ask? Where do you start?
With so many doctors out there, the decision may feel daunting, but experts say the best place to start is not by examining the doctors, but by examining yourself and your medical needs.
What Are the Major Issues?
Primary care doctors can differ. Internists study and treat only adults, while family practitioners focus on both adults and children. Women may choose to see their obstetrician or gynecologist as their primary care doctor. It is important to evaluate which type of doctor you will feel most comfortable with and which type will meet your needs.
Do you prefer a primary care doctor who will care for most of your medical problems and only refer more complicated ones to specialists, or one who will see you for basic care and refer you to others for specific problems? The answer depends on what type of doctor you want or need. If you prefer the latter, make sure you choose an office with an efficient system of handling referrals, or find a health plan that allows you to see any doctor you want without costing you more out of pocket money. Current evidence suggests that people do best when they have a medical home—a place that provides nearly all of their care and coordinates referrals.
Keep in mind that most primary care doctors can manage more common problems, such as diabetes and many have specialty training or interest in certain areas.
You might ask potential doctors how they approach different aspects of treatment. For example, if you want a little flexibility about something like your blood glucose or cholesterol levels, you may want to avoid a doctor who follows rigid guidelines.
If you already have a health plan, your choice of doctors may be limited. If you have your choice of plans, you may want to choose a doctor first and choose the plan that includes that doctor. You may also want to consider other practical factors, as well, such as whether the doctor's office is in a convenient location or if their office hours fit into your schedule. In your research, you may think about a potential doctor's age, gender, training, or hospital affilication.
Try not to choose a plan based on cost per month, but on what you need. If you try to save money per month, your budget plan may backfire down the road when you need it the most.
What About Recommendations?
A good place to start collecting names of potential doctors is through recommendations from friends. But keep in mind that you need to find out why your cousin or neighbor recommends their doctor so highly. You may find a recommendation is based on a doctor that distributes educational materials when you may have an interest in complimentary and alternative treatments.
Once you have your priority list and the names of potential doctors, set up an interview appointment with each one. This is the time when you can ask specifically about their views and experience to find out if you can work together.
What About Background Checks?
While most large insurance plans routinely check a doctor’s board certification and licensure before including them, you can also usually get this information through each state’s medical board. Some state medical boards also publish whether a doctor has had any disciplinary actions or malpractice claims. The National Practitioner Databank is a listing of all doctors who have had disciplinary actions levied against them. This is not open to the public, but the organization Public Citizen’s Health Research Group offers resources.
You can also obtain information about many licensed doctors in the United States from the American Medical Association (AMA).
The Bottom Line
No one but you can decide what is the most important thing to look for in a doctor. If you know what you are looking for, you can find a doctor who will meet your needs. That is the best way to get a good match.
FamilyDoctor.org - American Academy of Family Physicians
Public Citizen Health Research Group
Choosing a doctor. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://archive.ahrq.gov/consumer/qnt/qntdr.htm. Accessed June 4, 2014.
Choosing a family doctor. American Academy of Family Physicans Family Doctor website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/healthcare-management/working-with-your-doctor/choosing-a-family-doctor.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed June 4, 2014.
Kellerman R, Kirk L. Principles of patient-centered medical home. Am Fam Physician. 2007;76(6):774-775. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0915/p774.html. Accessed June 4, 2014.
The advanced medical home: a patient-centered, physician-guided model of health care. American College of Physicans website. Available at: http://www.acponline.org/pressroom/admed%5Fhome.htm. Published January 2006. Accessed June 4, 2014.
What is a doctor of internal medicine? American College of Physicians website. Available at: http://www.acponline.org/patients%5Ffamilies/about%5Finternal%5Fmedicine/internist.pdf. Accessed June 4, 2014.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2014
- Update Date: 06/04/2014