By Nathan Blake |12/19/16
When my partner and I moved from Virginia to Massachusetts, neither of us had any idea what we would do once we got here. Those days we were scraping by without: an apartment, jobs, state driver’s licenses, a local bank, and health insurance.
Fortunately we were able to cross off everything from that list within a month. But the last item — getting health insurance — was only the first step in health maintenance. I knew eventually I would want a medical professional I could trust to help me make my healthcare decisions, both big and small.
What I was needed was a primary care physician, or PCP.
What’s a Primary Care Physician?
Primary care physicians (also called “primary care doctors”) provide general medical services to specific patient populations.
A pediatrician manages the health of infants and children. Internists provide care to adults, diagnosing the nonsurgical treatment of diseases. A gynecologist specializes in pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Each is a primary care physician, just with different specialties.
Why Are Primary Care Doctors Important?
PCPs, unlike many other health specialists, get to know their patients intimately and over a longer period of time. The ongoing nature of the PCP-patient relationship means the doctor can better assess what’s considered “normal” (and what isn’t) for each patient.
But those aren’t the only benefits of having a primary care physician.
The PCP often serves as a patient’s go-to medical resource. No more Dr. Google — with a primary care physician, you can talk about all of your health concerns with an expert you trust. It’s the primary care physician’s job to provide the patient with the very best care available, whether that care is in-house or through a referral to another specialist.
Primary care physicians and patients engage in what is called “continuity of care,” which means building a personal relationship that develops year after year. Keeping a close watch over a patient’s health allows PCPs to better intervene with disease prevention, patient education, health maintenance, and the diagnosis and treatment of both acute and chronic illnesses.
Lastly, the ease of access and communication involved with visiting a primary care physician is unrivaled. Longstanding doctor-patient relationships afford patients the opportunity to truly understand and participate in decisions that affect their health.
Once I settled down in Massachusetts, I knew I would need a primary care physician in my corner if I wanted to stay on top of my health. Turns out I had no idea how to actually go about choosing a primary care physician.
How Do I Choose a PCP?
Choosing a primary care physician is sort of like dating: there’s a large pool to choose from, and finding the right fit may take some trial and error.
Here are some tips I picked up that may help you find the doctor who best fits your personal needs. Let us know in the comments if they help!
• Understand your insurance plan: Contact your health insurer or check your policy’s benefits to find out which doctors are considered “in-network.” Doctors in your insurers network will offer you discounted rates negotiated in advance by your health plan. Doctors considered “out-of-network,” on the other hand, often require patients to pay for their services up-front and in full.
It’s almost always a good idea to choose a PCP who is willing to work with your health insurance. We have an entire post focused on how to work with a doctor who doesn’t accept your health insurance.
• Ask people you trust: Consider asking for recommendations from friends, family, and coworkers. Most people feel more comfortable visiting doctors who have been recommended by someone they trust. Another benefit is that other people (or websites if you’re looking online) can help you pinpoint exactly what you want in a healthcare provider.
Are they male or female? Old or young? Laid-back or over-serious? The more you know about a doctor increases the chances that you’ll find one you like.
• Keep an eye out for compatibility: Many patients schedule preliminary interviews with potential doctors to determine “fit.” Imagine the first visit as a trial run, and don’t rule out your gut-feeling.
Does the doctor explain things clearly? Do they listen without interrupting? Is the doctor relatable or more formal than your liking? Can you tell if the doctor prefers aggressive treatment or a more prolonged “wait-and-see” approach? All of these questions will help you in your search for a primary care physician.
• Plan logistically: If you have a specific health condition like diabetes, you should choose a PCP who has specialized training or experience in endocrinology to receive the best care for your needs.
Other logistical considerations include the distance required to travel to the doctor’s office, schedule flexibility, and whether or not the doctor can understand you preferred language.
Make a list of your “wants” and “needs,” which you can then use to narrow down the list.
• Know their availability: Not all primary care physicians accept new patients. Even doctors with availability may have hours that conflict with your schedule. Some PCPs have dozens of patients, and those with more responsibilities require longer wait times to schedule an appointment.
Reach out to the doctor to get a better idea of their availability before you commit. You may be able to find someone who is a better fit for your schedule.
• Check for qualifications: A doctor is tasked with matters of literal life and death. Of course you’re not going to take advice from someone who isn’t qualified to give that advice. You want your health advisor to be an authority in their field, with an education and professional background that reflects expertise.
Check online or through the doctor’s office to see if the doctor is board-certified in the field(s) that you are visiting them for.
Are you ready to choose a primary care physician? Check out our “Doctors & Hospitals” category to browse resources we recommend for locating doctors online. Happy hunting!