How to Find a Primary Care Doctor
You must go through a few critical steps to find a primary care doctor right for you. It may be tempting to skip a step or two. But you’re ideally creating a long-term relationship with a provider you trust. Take time to move through the process thoughtfully:
- Determine the Type of Primary Care Doctor You Need
- Ask for Recommendations
- Consult Your Healthcare Policy
- Consider Convenience
- Evaluate Credentials and Experience
- Make an Informed Decision
Here’s how to start the search for a primary care doctor and weigh your options when it’s time to choose.
Table of Contents
The Right Primary Care Doctor Can Make All the Difference
A primary care doctor acts as your main, non-emergency contact within the healthcare system and understands your overall health history well enough to provide referrals and interventions.
The provider will also:
- Treat immediate and ongoing mental and physical health issues
- Offer preventative screening, lab work, and vaccinations
- Refer you to necessary specialists, in and out of network
- Coordinate medications
- Manage follow-up care
The right provider will offer tailored care, thorough screening, and accurate referrals. Some insurance plans require you to select a doctor. But even if not required, a primary care doctor is an excellent person to have your corner and can act as your advocate within the healthcare system.
1. Determine the Type of Primary Care Doctor You Need
A primary care doctor should listen to your concerns, encourage you to ask questions, and treat your experiences respectfully. If you receive a diagnosis, an excellent primary care doctor will explain health conditions, diseases, and interventions in a way you understand.
Primary care doctors are broadly familiar with most conditions. But sometimes, you may want to find a primary care doctor who can offer specialized care.
Types of Primary Care Doctors
A primary care provider (PCP) can offer broad-based, general care or care targeted at specific demographics, such as age. Here are the main PCP types:
- Family Practice Doctors: These physicians provide primary care for all life ages and stages and a wide variety of ailments or conditions.
- Internal Medicine Doctors: Internists or general internal medicine physicians offer preventative care to adults 14-18 and older (depending on location and plan). These physicians also diagnose, treat, and manage chronic or complex diseases.
- Obstetricians/Gynecologists: These physicians specialize in providing routine and specialized healthcare for adolescent and adult females.
- Pediatricians: Pediatricians only provide health services for those under 18 to 21, including wellness checks, disease diagnosis, and treatment.
- Geriatricians: These physicians specialize in age-related diseases and preventive healthcare for older adults.
Primary care providers do not have to be medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathy (DO). Depending on the clinic, a physician assistant (PA) or nurse practitioner (NP) can provide the same services as a primary care doctor.
2. Ask for Recommendations
Get recommendations from those you know and trust, including:
- Nearby family members, friends, or coworkers
- Advocacy organizations, if you have a chronic health condition
- Other health professionals you trust, whether your dentist, or
- If your doctor is moving locations or retiring, you can ask your doctor for a referral
When getting a recommendation, ask open-ended questions that provide more specifics versus yes or no questions. For example, ask:
- “What do you like about your doctor?”
- “Are there any downsides to the doctor or the office?”
- “How does the doctor respond if you ask questions or bring in information?”
- “How do you communicate with the doctor? Anything you would change?”
Advantages of Relying on Personal Recommendations
Asking for personal recommendations offers several benefits:
- First-Hand Experience: Personal experience with a physician can provide more insight regarding interaction style and competence than spending hours searching for a PCP online.
- Trustworthy Source: Hearing detailed personal experiences from a family member, friends, or coworkers can be better than online reviews from strangers who may have a personal grudge or other issues.
- Location: A coworker or nearby friend or family member can recommend someone in the same geographic area, reducing your need to drive around for appointments.
- Similar Healthcare Needs: If you’re the parent of a newborn, other parents may offer great pediatrician recommendations. If you’re struggling with a chronic condition such as diabetes or heart disease, a recommendation from another patient with similar conditions can reflect good treatment experiences with a particular doctor.
- Emotional Comfort: Your recommender already test-drove the doctor-patient relationship, which decreases unknown factors that could add stress to the process.
Disadvantages of Relying on Personal Recommendations
A recommendation is only sometimes going to work out. Here’s why:
- Subjective Opinion: Your best friend may have a different communication style or healthcare expectations than you do. Perhaps he prefers a direct communicator, while you want someone who can cushion bad news. Everyone brings subjective opinions to interactions.
- Limited Pool: Relying on personal recommendations limits the pool of doctors recommended — not every recommendation will be in your insurance network or geographically close.
- Different Healthcare Needs: Your best friend may have different healthcare needs than you, or her pediatrician may not be as experienced with your child’s chronic condition. It might be best to state those outright if you need a provider with experience in your health concerns.
Using Online Reviews
A physician’s online review may be found in everything from Yelp to websites focused solely on grading doctors. Some systems publicly release information gathered by anonymous patient surveys. Reviews can offer general trends regarding a doctor’s communication style, listening abilities, and responsiveness. If a doctor has dozens of one-star reviews, it’s likely a consistent sign of a more serious issue.
But remember that the most displeased are often the most vocal online. Additionally, some doctors might only have a few reviews due to a lack of survey responses or because they’re newer to a system or city. Do not rule out a doc just because few reviews exist.
3. Consult Your Health Insurance Policy
Your insurance plan determines how your coverage interacts with your primary care doctor’s roles and responsibilities and who you can choose for a doctor. Here’s how:
Insurance Plan Type
Health Maintenance Organization (HMO):
Must be in network
Provides required in-network referrals to other specialists or doctors
Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO):
Must be in network
Helps you coordinate care
Preferred Provider Organization (PPO):
In or out of network
Helps you coordinate care
Provides in- or out-of-network referrals and coordinates care
Understanding Your Insurance Network
Depending on your plan, you may need to choose your PCP from an in-network list of physicians. Other plans allow you to have a primary care provider out-of-network, but you pay more to do so.
You have two main ways to research in-network providers:
- Use the insurance company’s website to perform a search. Make sure you’re signed in so the site knows which plan and network you’re in. Depending on your insurance company, you may be able to search by location, specialization, whether new patients are accepted, and more.
- Call the doctor’s billing office. Ask if your insurance is accepted if you’re interested in a particular doctor. Have your card out to provide your identification number and other details. Ask about the cost of a simple in-office visit.
4. Consider Convenience
To increase the likelihood you’ll go in for routine checkups, screenings, and to discuss results, consider convenience:
- Location: Take a look at how close the doctor’s office is to your home or work. Ask yourself if you can arrive quickly, if necessary, before or after work or school drop-off.
- Hours: Check the clinic’s hours to see if they are open in the early mornings, evenings, or on weekends.
- Transportation: Find out if the doctor’s office is on a bus line or other public transportation. And see if there is plentiful, free, and secure lot or street parking. Factor in any parking fees.
- Availability: Online search tools often reflect whether a doctor is taking new patients. If so, determine how long you’ll typically have to wait for an appointment.
- Communication: Find out how the doctor and their staff get in touch — whether virtual visits, email or messaging, or phone calls.
- Urgent/Emergent Situations: Avoiding urgent care and emergency room settings can save money. Ask the clinic if the doctor offers same-day or next-day appointments for urgent problems or if the clinic provides another provider to see you.
5. Evaluate Credentials and Experience
Schedule consultations with several doctors in-person or virtually. These meetings can be a determining factor in choosing a provider. Someone who looks great on paper (or online) may rub you the wrong way in person. When meeting with doctors to decide, weigh the following factors carefully.
Every doctor and patient brings a different communication style based on personality, experience, appointment time length, or even geographic location. But in all cases, you should leave the appointment feeling respected and confident in the physician’s approach.
This includes feeling respected for your beliefs and opinions. The doctor listens sensitively to your culture, individual factors, or health concerns. The physician should be able to converse with you using language you understand.
If you have follow-up questions, there should be a method for communication with the doctor — for example, an online messaging system, which can ease schedule mismatches.
Find out about the doctor’s:
- Education and Certifications: Find out the provider’s path to becoming a doctor, and check if they are board-certified. This means the doctor received extra training after regular medical school and passed an exam in specialty areas.
- Experience: Look into the doctor’s experience working with your conditions or age group. Additionally, check what clinical research they’ve been a part of.
- Hospital affiliations: Find out which hospital the doctor works with.
6. Make an Informed Decision
Making your final choice after all these steps can be difficult. Many people often have to make a gut decision based on a doctor’s interpersonal style and whether they gel with the provider. You trust or like the physician, even if you’re unsure why.
Upon reflection, you may realize your gut is leading you in the right direction. Perhaps you share a similar sense of humor or appreciate the doctor’s open-minded curiosity. The office may be more relaxing and less clinical or cold than other options. The online appointment system may work more smoothly for you, or you like walking to the office.
Remember, even if this doctor doesn’t work out, do not panic. You now have the skills to find another.
Changing Primary Care Providers
Changing your primary care provider could be as easy as a switch in your online insurance portal’s user profile. Or the process could be more laborious, particularly if you’re changing plans and providers, or providers and an entire healthcare network or system. Regardless, sometimes the change must be accomplished due to logistical, personal, or health reasons.
When To Consider a Change
People change PCPs all the time. Reasons vary:
- Dissatisfaction: Perhaps you feel like your doctor is not listening to you, is pressed for time, or is overwhelmed with patients. The office staff may have high turnover or low responsiveness.
- Access: You might feel frustrated with scheduling, hours of operation location, parking fees, or document access.
- A Move: If you’ve moved or your doctor moved away, you’ll likely need a new care provider.
- Health or Medical Status Change: If your healthcare needs have changed, you might need a provider with experience managing a new condition.
- Insurance Change: A new plan may cover different providers, or your provider may drop out of the in-network system.
How to Transition to A New Doctor
Do not worry about your current doctor’s feelings — this is a business transaction, in the end. Here’s how to start the process if you’ve found a new provider.
New Health Plan: If you’ve already switched to a new insurance plan, you must ensure the new provider is within the plan. Then, you’ll need to set your primary care provider status within your user profile online or by calling. You should receive a physical card with your new primary care physician’s name listed.
Same Healthcare System: If you’re on the same plan, you’ll switch to a new provider within the insurer’s online system or by calling your insurer. You should receive a card with your new PCP’s name listed. If your new provider is within the same healthcare system umbrella, your new provider can access your existing medical records.
Different Healthcare System: If you’re switching to a provider working within a different healthcare system, you must request your records.
You can request your record by filling out a record release form through your provider’s patient portal. Or you might need to email, mail, or fax a letter to your provider.
All in All
The right primary care provider is a trusted, knowledgeable, and empathetic partner in your healthcare journey. This physician can help you with a healthier lifestyle while also helping you contain costs and find the right care within an often confusing system.
In a best-case scenario, your primary care physician is your advocate within the healthcare system and with your insurance company. The doctor provides preventive care, reviews results, offers referrals, and can help you work with your insurance company if a claim is denied.
By choosing your provider, you’re committing to taking charge of your health both today and in the future.