12 Insider Tips for Choosing the Best Primary Care Doctor
Your primary care physician is possibly your most important health care professional. Don’t just pick a name off your insurance’s list—here’s what the experts suggest.
Consider location, location, location
It might not seem like a big deal to travel 45 minutes to find a doctor you can trust—but it might when you’re really sick and can barely muster energy to get out of bed. “Location matters because of convenience, and you never want to underestimate convenience,” says Paula Muto, MD, CEO and founder of UBERDOC. “When you need a doctor, you don’t want to travel far, especially if you need to schedule a visit more than once year.” One study from the University of Michigan Medical School found that patients had a greater disease burden as their distance from their primary care physician increased.
Check the type of doctor
Even if you can tell the difference between a DO and an MD, you might not know the difference between family medicine and internal medicine. “The differences in training fosters unique skill sets between the two specialties that patients can consider when choosing a primary care doctor,” says Lindsay Nakaishi, MD, MPH, chief resident at the UPMC Shadyside Family Health Center. “Family medicine practitioners care for patients of all ages from birth to death, which can include prenatal, obstetric, gynecologic, pediatric, adult, and geriatric care. Internal medicine providers typically offer care for adults starting at 18 years old, and may refer out to an OBGYN provider for women’s healthcare needs.” Family practitioners may focus on disease prevention, but internal medicine doctors often have a subspecialty—so if you have a particular health problem, seek out one who knows your issue. Also, although you might refer to your primary care physician as a GP (general practitioner), that’s not an actual specialty requiring a board certification.
See how available they are
You want to make the most of your next doctor’s appointment, but it can be really frustrating when you have to wait months to get in. Again, convenience plays a role here, although it might not have to do with the quality of care you receive. “Some providers may have a limited schedule with fewer available appointments, resulting in longer wait times for routine appointments,” says Ida Tuwatananurak, DO, chief resident at the UPMC Shadyside Family Health Center. “However, patients may want to choose a doctor whose practice can see them within one to two days—or same day—for acute concerns.” In general, it’s best to see a primary care doctor who knows you, rather than having to go to an urgent care or the ER.
Remember your time is valuable, too
There are some things you shouldn’t do before a doctor’s appointment, and one of them is arrive late, because they might not hold your appointment slot. But once you get there, you might be the one waiting—another frustration for busy people. “Sometimes the wait is not the fault of the doctor—it could be the office procedures holding things up,” says Dr. Muto. “But, if there are few people in the waiting room, it’s probably the doctor.” Taking time with patients is great, but if it’s a consistent problem, it might be time to find someone who makes, and sticks to, a more realistic schedule.
The receptionist can be the gatekeeper
One trick for how to find a good doctor is to make nice with the support team. “We never want to underestimate the importance of the office staff, because often times they will be the ones to arrange any follow-up appointments, visits, or care that is needed,” says Dr. Muto. So if the receptionist is always unfriendly, you might want to think twice about continuing to go there—but first, ask your doctor about it when you do get in to see her. “There are many reasons a practice may seem disorganized or unhelpful—for example, the practice may be understaffed, the workers may be in the process of training, the practice may be transitioning leadership, or the staff could just be having a bad day,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “Patients can talk to their doctor about any concerns with how the office is functioning so they can actively work on remedying the issues.”
You should be comfortable opening up
You want to be able to really communicate with your doctor, and you can’t do that if you don’t feel comfortable divulging private, and possibly embarrassing, info. “Medicine is a contact sport based on trust and communication,” says Dr. Muto. “If you’re uncomfortable, it may be hard for you to convey a symptom to your doctor.” For a specialist who might be the only person who can perform what you need done, you might be willing to accept a lack of bedside manner. But for your primary care doctor, choose one you feel at ease with.
Your doctor shouldn’t make you feel rushed
Another one of the best signs your doctor is a keeper? You leave feeling your doctor listened to you and answered all your questions. A recent report showed that doctors spend an average of 13 to 16 minutes per patient—not much time for a doctor you only see once a year. Another study found doctors let patients speak for just 12 seconds before interrupting them. “When the right fit is found, patients should leave the appointment satisfied that their questions were addressed with patience, sincerity, and candor,” Dr. Tuwatananurak says. “The ‘right’ doctor fosters a patient-physician relationship in which patients are comfortable disclosing their most intimate health concerns, can freely and easily communicate with the provider, and can partner with their doctor to come up with a treatment plan that’s most appropriate and helpful for the patient.”
Think about gender preference
You don’t know what your doctor’s really thinking, so you might feel more comfortable discussing certain issues with a doctor of the same sex. But it might not matter in terms of the actual care you receive. “The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study that demonstrated that patients 65 and older who are treated by female physicians have lower mortality and readmission rates within 30 days of discharge from the hospital,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “However, on an individual level, a doctor’s gender does not dictate his or her competency or compassion.”
Ask a friendIryna Inshyna/Shutterstock
You might not want to trust the health advice you just found on the web, but it’s a good idea to check out online reviews of your doctor. Better yet, ask someone you know in real life. “Personal referrals can be a great starting place when looking for a physician,” Dr. Tuwatananurak says. “Patients should seek referrals from friends or family who have similar values and priorities in choosing a primary care physician.” Referrals can help also patients find a doctor who may be more familiar with one disease or another, if that applies to you.
Technology can helpSFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock
Medical advances are giving us hope all over the place, and your doctor may be following suit on an individual level by creating a more tech-savvy practice to better assist patients. Keeping electronic records to avoid having to ask for paper copies, having a patient website with all info available, and allowing patients to contact them by email are all positives when choosing a doctor—as long as it doesn’t replace actual interaction. “A truly genuine doctor-patient relationship is based on a personal level,” Dr. Muto says. “Technology helps in how we communicate, but it shouldn’t replace or change the need for communication.”
A shabby office is okcambo photography/Shutterstock
Funny things can happen at the doctor’s office—but you probably don’t want the office itself to look funny. Nice decor, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the office is well-run or the doctor is better than one whose office has seen better days. “It could mean that the doctor is investing their resources back to patient care,” Dr. Muto says. “Does a high-tech classroom make a better teacher? You can still teach with a blackboard and chalk.” Although it doesn’t give a good first impression, a rundown office isn’t necessarily a sign to run the other way—going old-school can be ok, too.
Check the hospital
Hopefully you won’t have a need to find out the secrets hospitals don’t want to tell you, but if you do have to go the hospital, it’s best if your primary care doctor has privileges at your preferred facility. Plus, if you need to see a specialist, they’ll be in the same hospital system. “Hospital systems often have central electronic medical record systems, and having access to all of the patient’s medical record can improve continuity, enhance communication between providers, and reduce healthcare costs,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “Ultimately, patients should choose a physician they can trust and based on their ability to provide high quality, evidence-based care.”