How to Choose a Primary Care Doctor
Maybe you’ve moved or changed jobs. Maybe you’re 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 physicians 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.
“The main thing [in choosing a personal physician] is to make yourself the center of focus,” says Charles Inlander, President of the People’s Medical Society, the largest medical consumer advocacy organization in the United States. “You really have to first assess what your needs are, what your preferences are, and the way you live,” he says. As you begin your search, it’s helpful to make a priority list of what you need, want, and expect; then you will find the best doctor for you.
What Are the Major Issues?
In choosing a doctor, there are two major issues to assess, says Inlander. He calls them the “amenities” issues and the “medical” issues. Both are important and require your consideration. The “amenities” issues are the nuts and bolts questions that cover how you will access your healthcare. These include, “Is the doctor’s office close by? Do the office hours suit your schedule? Are you comfortable with how fast you can get appointments?” These are basics, says Inlander, but they are the things that become the most irritating when they don’t fit your expectations.
The “medical” issues, Inlander says, include looking at the doctor’s training, specialty, and which hospitals he or she is affiliated with. All doctors have different training backgrounds. Even primary care doctors can differ—some are internists who study and treat only adults, while some are family practitioners who focus on both adults and kids. It’s important to evaluate if you will feel more comfortable with one type more than another.
Further, if you have a certain medical condition, such as diabetes, you’ll want to know how much experience the doctor has in treating that condition. You’ll also want to determine how much of your primary care that doctor will provide. For example, will she take care of problems other than your diabetes? Or will you be referred to a specialist? Current evidence suggests that people do best when they have a medical “home”—a place that provides nearly all of the care and coordinates referrals. For most, that care may be from a generalist physician, but it may also be from a specialist.
You’ll need to decide if you are looking for a certain specialty, training in a certain area, or affiliation with a certain hospital. You might ask potential doctors whether they have any data about how closely their patients achieve recommended goals, such as keeping blood glucose levels in a certain range.
You could ask other questions, like what techniques the office uses to help people quit smoking. For example, the doctor may use a tracking system and ask patients about smoking at each visit. If your potential doctor provides this kind of careful service, you may find him to be a conscientious physician, even if you don’t smoke. The US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality provides an online set of questions that you could ask.
What About Recommendations?
A good place to start collecting names of potential physicians is through recommendations from friends. But keep in mind, reminds Dr. Borg, that you need to find out why your cousin or neighbor recommends their doctor so highly.
“Quality, especially when it comes to healthcare, lies in the eyes of the beholder,” Dr. Borg says.
It may turn out that your cousin likes her doctor because of the educational materials he gives her, while you are actually more interested in whether the doctor is receptive to acupuncture referrals. For consumer evaluations of doctors, you can visit RateMDs.com. While there are not a lot of reports, you may find some helpful information.
Once you’ve got your priority list and the names of potential doctors, Inlander advocates setting up an interview appointment with each potential physician. This is the time when you can ask specifically about the doctor’s views and experience and find out if you can work together. Remember, says Inlander, what you’re striving for is a partnership with your doctor.
What About Background Checks?
While most large insurance plans routinely check a physician’s board certification and licensure before hiring, 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.
The Bottom Line
No one but you can decide what is the most important thing to look for in a doctor. “It’s really about expectations,” says Dr. Borg. If you know what you’re looking for, then you can find a physician who will meet your needs. That’s the best way to get a good match.
People’s Medical Society
Public Citizen Health Research Group
American College of Physicians. The Advanced Medical Home: A patient-centered, physician-guided model of health care. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/healthit/ahic/materials/meeting03/cc/ACP_Initiative.pdf. Published January 2006. Accessed July 18, 2008.
Choosing a doctor. Agency for Health Care Research and Quality website. Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/qntascii/qntdr.htm. Published 2001. Accessed July 18, 2008.
Patient Centered Medical Home, American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home/membership/initiatives/pcmh.html. Accessed July 18, 2008.
What is a Doctor of Internal Medicine? American College of Physicians website. Available at: http://www.acponline.org/patients_families/about_internal_medicine/internist.pdf
Last reviewed June 2008 by Lawrence Frisch, MD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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