If you don’t already have a primary care physician, you should consider getting one soon. It’s good for your health, says a growing body of evidence.
Specifically, a 2019 case study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that mortality rates are lower in U.S. counties with more primary care providers. Each 10 additional primary care physicians per 100,000 people was linked to a 51.5-day increase in life expectancy, the researchers reported.
Primary care providers have such an enormous impact on the health and well-being of patients because they are “trained in the assessment and management of comprehensive care,” says Dr. Sophia Tolliver, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“Unlike a specialist, they’re equipped to promote health and wellness via health screenings and conversations about diet, exercise and mental health,” she explains. “Additionally, they’re trained to treat a wide breadth and depth of medical concerns from acute care to chronic conditions.” All of that adds up to better outcomes for patients.
60 Years of Primary Care
The concept of a primary care doctor was first introduced in 1961 a now-classic New England Journal of Medicine article titled “The Ecology of Medical Care.” The idea was to improve care for patients navigating a complicated web of specialist providers that had developed in American medicine by the mid-20th century.
The idea had legs, and today, the primary care physician is the doctor you see for anything from a sniffle or annual physical to chronic disease care, routine preventive tests or a sudden illness or injury.
A front-line health care provider, your primary care doctor is the person who’s looking out for all your health needs, big and small. And this provider can coordinate care when you need more intensive or specialized assistance.
Why You Need a Primary Care Doctor
“Whether you’re in good health or have multiple chronic conditions, primary care doctors often are the most familiar with their patient’s overall health,” says Dr. Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly operated health plan in the U.S.
As such, many PCPs are “focused on general preventive recommendations,” he says. These typically include:
- Screening for common chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or cancer.
- Keeping tabs on growth and development in children.
- Conducting annual physical exams and other wellness checks.
- Providing immunizations or medications as needed.
- Helping manage your overall health and wellness.
What’s more, many health insurance programs require a referral from a primary care physician before you can see a specialist for a closer look at a specific health issue. If you need specialized care, having an established relationship with a primary care provider can get you to the right specialist faster.
Selecting the Right Doctor for Your Situation
Not all primary care providers are the same, and even in this area of medicine, some providers may specialize in a certain kind of patient or a type of issue.
Dr. Chris Jaeger, vice president of care redesign and chief innovation officer at Pacific Business Group on Health, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve quality while moderating costs across the U.S. health system, says the following five categories of primary care providers make up the constellation of primary caregivers.
You may encounter one or more of the different types of primary care doctors over the course of your lifetime as your needs change.
- Family practitioners. These providers see patients of all ages, from children to the elderly. They can also cover obstetrics, deliveries and perform simple surgeries.
- Internal medicine providers. Internal medicine providers typically work with adults and may also see geriatric patients.
- Pediatricians. Pediatric practitioners work with children up to 18 years of age.
- OB/GYN providers. These providers specialize in women’s health, including common primary care for women of childbearing years, such as routine pelvic exams, conducting PAP smears and counseling about family planning.
- Geriatricians. Geriatricians are internists who focus on treating the elderly and conditions of aging.
Whichever primary care doctor you select, they should act as your first stop for any question regarding health and wellness.
What to Look for in a Good Doctor
There are several steps you should follow and considerations to address when looking right doctor.
1. Check With Your Insurance Carrier
Assuming you have insurance, it’s often best to start by finding out which doctors are in your network before spending a lot of time learning about a great doctor you may not be able to see because they’re out of network.
“Health insurance companies have provider directories that can help people find doctors conveniently located and include information about the doctor to help narrow down the choices,” Seidman says. Starting with that information may save you a lot of time.
2. Think About Your Needs and Preferences
What sort of needs will the doctor address for you and what would you prefer? “Some patients may prefer solo or small group private doctors, while others may prefer doctors practicing within organized medical groups including independent groups and those affiliated with a local hospital,” Seidman says.
Some patients want to be seen by a male provider, others will only work with a woman.
Tolliver also recommends considering what technology a practice uses and when they’re open. Will they be using an electronic medical records system that connects to the local hospital network, or is the practice still on paper charts? Is the doctor reachable by email, or will you have to phone them when you need to get in touch? Are the location and opening hours convenient with your schedule? For example, some offer Saturday appointments to accommodate people with busy work schedules.
In addition, consider what type of care style you’d most prefer. Do you want the doctor to be more conservative in approach by using more holistic practices before adding medications or suggesting surgery? Or do you take comfort in being able to get a pill for what ever is bothering you? There are different styles of care and any doctor you’re considering should be able to articulate their approach to medicine.
The key is to know what you’re looking for, what will fit with your lifestyle and what will make you feel most comfortable when working closely with a health care provider.
3. Ask for Recommendations
Another good way to find a great doctor is to ask friends and family for recommendations of who they see and why they like a particular provider. Find out specifically why they did or didn’t like a doctor, as that can offer clues as to whether or not this provider will be a good fit for you.
“Word of mouth is a great way to find a doctor that best meets your needs,” Seidman says. In fact, he notes that “studies have shown that the more doctors have in common with their patients, such as gender, culture, race, language, etc., the better the health outcomes.”
4. Read Reviews
You may also want to check out online review sites to get a sense of what others think about a particular provider. Read online bios about the doctors who rise to the top of these searches and see who seems like a fit for you and your preferences.
But, a word of caution: If you read online doctor review sites, take the opinions posted there with a grain of salt. Just because a doctor receives a negative review doesn’t necessarily mean they treated the patient inappropriately. It could be that the patient went in seeking a specific outcome, such as a prescription for an antibiotic, but upon review, such treatment wasn’t the right course of action in that instance.
5. Check Their Background
You should also consider the educational background and clinical training of any provider you’re considering, Seidman says. “The best primary care doctors are well-trained experts, great listeners and genuinely care about their patients and seek to understand all of the circumstances that contribute to their overall health – or barriers that may limit their ability to achieve their optimal health status.”
As such, Seidman recommends looking for board-certified pediatricians, internal medicine specialists, or family medicine physicians “who have completed three-year training programs after completing medical school and have passed their board certification exams.”
You may also want to research whether there have been any complaints made against a provider. You can do this via the Federation of State Medical Boards’ DocInfo website, which provides access to the disciplinary history of doctors in every state if such history exists.
The more you know about a doctor, the better the chances are that you’ll find a good fit.
6. Set Up a Meeting
Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible doctors based on their location, background and whether or not they’re in your insurance network, the next step is to meet with them and get a sense of what they’re like. Many doctors are happy to have a brief, introductory phone call with prospective patients.
When you do meet with the doctor, assess how the doctor receives you:
Once you’ve done all that, if the doctor feels like a good fit, great – you’ve found yourself the right provider for your situation. If not, keep searching. There are other providers out there and a little more searching may yet yield the best fit for you.
Tolliver notes that sometimes, the search for a new provider can be challenging, “especially if you’re leaving a physician you’ve been with for a number of years.” She urges you to “give your new physician a chance to learn about who you are as a patient and provide you good evidence-based medicine.”
In addition, she recommends “managing expectations regarding who your new physician should be as compared to who your previous physician was. That can help your new relationship flourish and grow.”
In the end, it’s about that relationship you forge with this important caregiver. “In addition to being a medical expert, a great primary care doctor can demonstrate his or her heart for people by listening empathetically and engaging their patients in a shared form of decision making,” Tolliver says. This helps patients “understand the intention of diagnosis and treatment including all of the risks and benefits associated therein.” In other words, find a doctor who can truly become your partner in health.