• How to Choose a Primary Care Doctor

    IMAGE Maybe you have moved or changed jobs. Maybe you are picking a doctor for the first time or your long-standing doctor has recently retired. Whatever your situation, choosing a doctor can be a complicated decision. How do you know which one is good? What questions should you ask? Where do you start?
    With so many physicians out there, the decision may feel daunting, but experts say the best place to start is not by examining the doctors, but by examining yourself and your medical needs.

    What Are the Major Issues?

    Primary care doctors can differ—some are internists who study and treat only adults, while some are family practitioners who focus on both adults and kids. Women may choose to see their obstetrician or gynecologist as their primary care doctor. It is important to evaluate which type of doctor you will feel most comfortable with and which type will meet your needs.
    Further, if you have a certain medical condition, such as diabetes, you will want to know how much experience the doctor has in treating that condition. You will also want to determine how much of your primary care that doctor will provide. For example, will she take care of problems other than your diabetes? Or will you be referred to a specialist? Current evidence suggests that people do best when they have a medical “home”—a place that provides nearly all of their care and coordinates referrals. For most, that care may be from a generalist physician, but it could also be from a specialist.
    You will need to decide if you are looking for a certain specialty, training in a certain area, or affiliation with a certain hospital. You might ask potential doctors whether they have any data about how closely their patients achieve recommended goals, such as keeping blood glucose levels in a certain range.
    If you already have a health plan, your choice of doctors is most likely limited. If you have your choice of plans, you may want to choose a doctor first and choose the plan that includes that doctor. You may also want to consider other practical factors, as well, such as whether the doctor's office is in a convenient location or if their office hours fit into your schedule.

    What About Recommendations?

    A good place to start collecting names of potential physicians is through recommendations from friends. But keep in mind that you need to find out why your cousin or neighbor recommends their doctor so highly. It may turn out that your cousin likes her doctor because of the educational materials he gives her, while you are actually more interested in whether the doctor is receptive to complimentary and alternative treatments.
    Once you have your priority list and the names of potential doctors, set up an interview appointment with each potential physician. This is the time when you can ask specifically about the doctor’s views and experience and find out if you can work together.

    What About Background Checks?

    While most large insurance plans routinely check a physician’s board certification and licensure before hiring, you can also usually get this information through each state’s medical board. Some state medical boards also publish whether a doctor has had any disciplinary actions or malpractice claims. The National Practitioner Databank is a listing of all doctors who have had disciplinary actions levied against them. This is not open to the public, but the organization Public Citizen’s Health Research Group offers resources.
    You can also obtain information about many licensed doctors in the United States from the American Medical Association (AMA).

    The Bottom Line

    No one but you can decide what is the most important thing to look for in a doctor. If you know what you are looking for, you can find a physician who will meet your needs. That is the best way to get a good match.


    People’s Medical Society http://www.peoplesmed.org/

    Public Citizen Health Research Group http://www.citizen.org/hrg/


    Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

    Healthy U http://www.healthyalberta.com/


    The advanced medical home: a patient-centered, physician-guided model of health care. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/healthit/ahic/materials/meeting03/cc/ACP%5FInitiative.pdf. Published January 2006. Accessed July 17, 2012.

    Choosing a doctor. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: http://archive.ahrq.gov/consumer/qnt/qntdr.htm. Accessed July 17, 2012.

    Patient centered medical home. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home/membership/initiatives/pcmh.html. Accessed July 17, 2012.

    What is a doctor of internal medicine? American College of Physicians website. Available at: http://www.acponline.org/patients%5Ffamilies/about%5Finternal%5Fmedicine/internist.pdf. Accessed July 17, 2012.

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