Choosing Your Primary Care Physician

By Nathan Blake |12/19/16
Updated |7/3/17

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 trustConsider 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 compatibilityMany 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 logisticallyIf 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 availabilityNot 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!

26 thoughts on “Choosing Your Primary Care Physician”

  1. Shad Morris says:

    These are some fantastic tips to find a good primary care physician. I love that you say to look at their availability, and make sure they don’t conflict with yours. It would be nice to know that you will be able to go to them when you are available.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Hi Shad,

      Thanks for reading! It can be very frustrating when consumers change doctors only to realize there’s a scheduling incompatibility. An easily overlooked but absolutely important detail to consider when choosing providers.

  2. Rachel Lannister says:

    My older brother just moved to a new town and wants to find a good doctor that he can go to. You wrote that a good general practitioner keeps a close watch over a patient’s health, helps with educating them on health, and diagnosing illnesses. That is exactly the kind of help that my brother could benefit from, so I’ll have to help him look online for a good nearby doctor. Thanks for the read.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Glad we could help, Rachel! Let us know how the search goes.

  3. Derek Mcdoogle says:

    In your article, you stated that a primary care doctor, also known as a general practitioner, is who you would visit for routine checkups and non-emergency care, especially when symptoms first appear. My family and I just moved to a new city and my daughter came home from school early today because she had a fever. I wonder if most primary care doctors are affiliated with an urgent care center.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Hi Derek,

      Thanks for reading! Urgent care centers usually fill the gap between primary care physicians and emergency rooms. The benefit of having a trusted primary care physician is the insight they provide into your specific health history. That sort of personalized medical insight is invaluable.

  4. Jenna Hunter says:

    We recently moved to the area last month and are in dire need to find a physician just in case of any emergencies that may arise. It was useful to know that Pediatricians manage the physical, mental, and behavioral health of infants and children. I will keep that in mind when we go to find a physician.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Hi Jenna,

      We wish you luck with your search for a pediatrician. Hopefully some of the websites on HealthWeb Navigator will put you in touch with quality resources to help make your decision easier.

  5. Ridley Fitzgerald says:

    You have so much information here about choosing the right doctor. I like how your first tip is just to ask around and find some recommendations. When we move to a new area, I will make sure to ask my new neighbors.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Hi Ridley!

      Good luck with your upcoming move! We hope that your neighbors will be of help to you.

  6. Bradford Snelson says:

    I liked your comment about how a primary care doctor is someone you would visit for routine and non-emergency care, whereas a specialist would be someone you would see for a very particular item. I feel like knowing how to make this distinction would be really important to help you find the best practitioner for your needs. It would probably be important to look for someone local and convenient as well.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      We agree 100%!

  7. Dennis Sanchez says:

    My sister and her family just moved to a new state and need to find a good family doctor they can see. You wrote that you should make sure you know what the hours of the doctors and their assistants are, so that you know when you’ll be able to make appointments. Since my sister and her family are busy and have daily activities, this will definitely have to be a deciding factor when choosing their doctor. Thank you for the great read.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      We’re glad you enjoyed it, Dennis. Check back soon for our next post!

  8. Max Jones says:

    I like that you talked about the different kinds of doctors between primary care and specialists. My wife and I have been looking into a few different doctors offices near us to try to find a good one for our family. We need to have doctors for our kids, so being able to do a little research and know where we should take them would be helpful!

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      We hope the search goes well, Max!

  9. Alex Dean says:

    My family just moved to a new state, and we are needing to find a new doctor. It’s good to know that there are benefits for going with a primary care physician. Like them being able to track our health overtime, that way we know they know our history and what would look best for us.

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Great points, Alex. Let us know what websites you find helpful when weighing different options.

  10. Ashley Turns says:

    I like how you mentioned that your primary physician should be someone that can help you specifically with any special medical problems you have. For example, if you have had a history of back pain, your practitioner should probably have some experience with chiropractics. My own uncle has had a history of heart problems. I will be sure to refer him to this page when he and his family move next month and need a new primary care physician.

  11. Harper Campbell says:

    My family is in need of finding a new primary care doctor, and I have been looking for some advice on how to go about looking for the right one. I like the suggestion you made about evaluating potential one’s qualifications and make sure that they are board certified in the different fields of the services that they offer. This makes sense but might be something that a lot of people tend to forget about, and something that I will now start doing.

  12. Callum Palmer says:

    I like that you emphasize how important “continuity of care” is when choosing a primary care provider. After all, the longer you see a certain doctor, the more and more you’ll get to know each other. This can easily lead the doctor to being able to make some informed decisions about what might be the best healthcare for you.

  13. Sarah Lancaster says:

    I really like how you mentioned finding a doctor nearby. I think some people forget, in time of emergencies you may want to be close by. I have lived both scenarios. I lived 5 minutes from my doctor when I was younger and then I have lived forty minutes away from my doctor. So if you can find a great doctor that is close to you, you have hit the jackpot! This was great information! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Gloria Durst says:

    I agree that you need to ensure that your new doctor is the right fit. It would be good to consider if they explain things well so that you can understand what they want. My husband and I need a new family doctor, so we’ll have to find one that we are compatible with.

  15. My wife and I are looking for a good family doctor now that we have moved into our new home. I really liked the suggestion that you gave for us to start our search by asking for recommendations from neighbors and friends that live in the area. How many recommendations would you suggest getting and researching before making a decision?

    1. HealthWeb Navigator says:

      Good question Earnest. There may not be a right answer here. We certainly think it’s helpful to get more than one perspective. But sometimes too many choices can lead to “analysis paralysis,” making it difficult to decide. So perhaps you’ll have to go with your gut. Let us know the magic number for you!

  16. Taylor Anderson says:

    I like how you mentioned that you’ll want to choose a doctor that is covered by your insurance. My head has been aching for several days, so I’ve been looking for a doctor to help me. These tips will help me find a wonderful doctor, so thank you for sharing these great tips.

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