10 tips for choosing a primary care doctor

A primary care physician is more than just a doctor. Over time, he or she learns the nuances of your medical history, your reaction to medications, your health goals, your lifestyle, your treatment preferences and whether a caregiver is supporting you in managing your health.

That intimate knowledge can make a big difference to your health. Studies show that people with primary care doctors are more likely to get preventive services, including cancer screenings, and report significantly better health care access. And patients in states that spend more on primary care have fewer hospitalizations and emergency room visits.

“Primary care doctors help you move through the continuum of life,” said Dr. Saurabha Bhatnagar, chief medical officer and head of technology & performance at UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement. “As we get older, our needs change and our functional ability changes. It’s nice to have someone who knows you guide you through the health care system as that happens.”

Bhatnagar provides the following 10 tips to help you choose the right primary care doctor for you.

1. Ask around

The first step to finding a great doctor: Talk to your family and friends about their doctors. A recommendation from someone you trust is a good way to identify a highly skilled, helpful physician. But remember: Every person is different. Just because a doctor was perfect for your neighbor or your best friend doesn’t mean that they are right for you.

2. Map it out

Since primary care is the conduit for everyday health needs, it’s important that your primary care doctor be located somewhere convenient to you. You won’t want to travel very far when you’re not feeling good. And if your doctor’s office is conveniently located, you’ll hopefully be more inclined to keep appointments for physicals and other preventive care when you’re healthy.

3. Make sure you’ve got coverage

Once you’ve identified some possible candidates, check whether they work with your health plan. If you have traditional Medicare, call the doctor’s office and ask if they accept Medicare patients. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, call your insurance provider or check your plan’s website to see if the doctor is in your plan’s network. Most plans charge more if you see a doctor outside the network, so it’s important to take this step before scheduling an appointment.

4. Do a quality check

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, check with your insurance company to see if they have any information about the quality ratings of specific primary care doctors in your network. You can also use the Physician Compare tool on Medicare.gov to see if your doctor has participated in any activities that indicate they provide high-quality care.

Finally, check to see whether your doctor is board-certified through the Certification Matters site, which the American Board of Medical Specialties maintains. Board-certified primary care doctors have not only met the licensing requirements of their states, but also passed comprehensive exams in internal medicine. Doctors also must keep up with the latest developments in their fields to maintain their certification, so you can be sure they’re giving you up-to-date advice.

5. Place a cold call

Bhatnagar advises that patients call a potential doctor’s office for a first impression of the practice.

“You can tell a lot by the phone etiquette of the office staff,” he said. “Ask if they’re taking new patients and see how they answer. If they say, ‘The next appointment is in 90 days, have a great day,’ that’s a lot different than saying, ‘He’s really busy, and we always make time for existing patients, so it might take us some time to fit a new patient in.’”

6. Ask about logistics … and whether they are set up for virtual appointments

Asking questions during that initial call can provide a sense of how the office runs. How does the office handle prescription refills? How do they let you know about test results? Can you email your doctor or schedule appointments online? Will the office call to remind you if you’re overdue for an annual screening or a flu shot?

You might also ask whether they offer same-day appointments and how long patients typically sit in the waiting room for an appointment.

And now that virtual visits are becoming more common, ask whether the doctor conducts this type of visit, and how easy it is to schedule a virtual appointment.

7. Keep your needs in mind

Every person has unique health needs, and those needs change as people age. Ask your doctor about their specialties or areas of interest.

For example, a physician who specializes in sports medicine may not be the best choice if you are not a serious athlete. But if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, you may want to look for a doctor with a special interest in diabetes care or a large number of patients with diabetes in their practice. Those are things to ask when you make that first call.

And if you have multiple complex medical issues, you may benefit from seeing a geriatrician. Geriatricians specialize in the care of older patients.

8. Look at the bigger picture

At the first visit, it’s important to make sure your doctor’s philosophy of care lines up with your own. Consider asking these questions: Why did the doctor decide to go into primary care? What is their favorite thing about being a doctor? What do they wish more patients would do after they leave the doctor’s office?

If your doctor’s outlook on patient care aligns nicely with your preferences, you’ll be more likely to follow their recommendations in between appointments. So take this information into consideration when deciding whether to stick with a doctor following your first appointment.

9. Avoid culture shock

Every cultural group has its own customs, ideas and taboos about medical care, so find a doctor who not only speaks your language but is sensitive to your cultural, religious or other personal convictions.

If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, for example, you will want to make sure your physician is sensitive to your concerns and knowledgeable about LGBTQ health issues.

It is important that your doctor is culturally aware and respects your ideas and traditions.

10. Trust your gut

Your primary care doctor is going to be a problem-solver and an important advocate for your health. It’s critical that you trust them and feel comfortable asking questions.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that after your first appointment, you ask yourself the following questions:

• Do you feel at ease with this doctor?

• Did the doctor show an interest in getting to know you?

• Did they answer all your questions?

• Did they explain things in a way you understood?

If something seems off, trust your instincts and look for a new doctor who is a better fit. You should be comfortable with whomever you choose; remember, this person will be an important advocate for your health and well-being in the years to come.

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