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12 Insider Tips for Choosing the Best Primary Care Doctor

Your primary care physician is possibly your most important health care professional. Don't just pick a name off your insurance's list—here's what the experts suggest.

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Consider location, location, location

It might not seem like a big deal to travel 45 minutes to find a doctor you can trust—here are some tips for locating that person. But when you’re really sick, it that distance can feel overwhelming! “Location matters because of convenience, and you never want to underestimate convenience,” says Paula Muto, MD, CEO and founder of UBERDOC. “When you need a doctor, you don’t want to travel far, especially if you need to schedule a visit more than once a year.” One study from the University of Michigan Medical School—published in BMJ—found that patients’ odds of recovery decreased as the distance from their primary care physician increased.

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Check the type of doctor

There are easy ways to tell the difference between a DO and an MD. Still, you might not know the difference between a family and internal medicine provider. “The differences in training fosters unique skill sets between the two specialties that patients can consider when choosing a primary care doctor,” says Lindsay Nakaishi, MD, MPH, faculty at the UPMC Shadyside Family Health Center. “Family medicine practitioners care for patients of all ages from birth to death, which can include prenatal, obstetric, gynecologic, pediatric, adult, and geriatric care. Internal medicine providers typically offer care for adults starting at 18 years old, and may refer out to an OBGYN provider for women’s healthcare needs.” Family practitioners may focus on disease prevention, while internal medicine doctors often have a sub-specialty. So, if you have a particular health problem, seek out an internist familiar with your concern. And keep in mind that you may call your primary care physician a GP (general practitioner), but that’s not an actual specialty. Nor does it come with required board certification.

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See how available they are

You want to make the most of your next doctor’s appointment—and here are some tips how. That’s why it can be really frustrating when you have to wait months to get into the office. Again, convenience plays a role here, even if it has nothing to do with the quality of care you ultimately receive. “Some providers may have a limited schedule with fewer available appointments, resulting in longer wait times for routine appointments,” says Ida Tuwatananurak, DO, Family Practice Physician, at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Community Clinic in Los Angeles, California. “However, patients may want to choose a doctor whose practice can see them within one to two days—or the same day—for acute concerns.” In general, it’s best to see a primary care doctor who knows you, rather than having to go to an urgent care clinic or the ER.

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Remember your time is valuable, too

There are some things you shouldn’t do before a doctor’s appointment (like the stuff on this list). Number one? Arriving late—you may just lose your appointment slot. Of course, you might be the one stuck waiting—a major frustration for busy people. “Sometimes the wait is not the fault of the doctor—it could be the office procedures holding things up,” says Dr. Muto. “But, if there are few people in the waiting room, it’s probably the doctor.” Taking time with patients is great, but if waiting is a consistent problem, consider a switch. You should have a doctor who makes, and sticks to, a more realistic schedule.

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The receptionist can be the gatekeeper

One trick for finding a good doctor? Make nice with the support team. “We never want to underestimate the importance of the office staff, because often times they will be the ones to arrange any follow-up appointments, visits, or care that is needed,” says Dr. Muto. If the receptionist is always unfriendly, you may want to switch practices—but first, tell your doctor about the problem. “There are many reasons a practice may seem disorganized or unhelpful—for example, the practice may be understaffed, the workers may be in the process of training, the practice may be transitioning leadership, or the staff could just be having a bad day,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “Patients can talk to their doctor about any concerns with how the office is functioning so they can actively work on remedying the issues.”

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You should be comfortable opening up

There are tricks to help you really communicate with your doctor. You can’t do them, however, if you don’t feel comfortable divulging private, possibly embarrassing, info. “Medicine is a contact sport based on trust and communication,” says Dr. Muto. “If you’re uncomfortable, it may be hard for you to convey a symptom to your doctor.” If you’re dealing with a specialist who might be the only person who can perform what you need done, you might be willing to accept a lack of bedside manner. But for your primary care doctor, choose one with whom you feel at ease.

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Your doctor shouldn’t make you feel rushed

Another sign you’ve found a doctor who’s a keeper (besides the ones here)? You leave the office feeling heard, and like your questions were answered. Doctors spend an average of 13 to 16 minutes per patient. That’s not much time with someone you only see once a year. “When the right fit is found, patients should leave the appointment satisfied that their questions were addressed with patience, sincerity, and candor,” Dr. Tuwatananurak says. “The ‘right’ doctor fosters a patient-physician relationship in which patients are comfortable disclosing their most intimate health concerns, can freely and easily communicate with the provider, and can partner with their doctor to come up with a treatment plan that’s most appropriate and helpful for the patient.”

Female doctor listening to female patientRoman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

Think about gender preference

You don’t know what your doctor’s really thinking, so you might feel more comfortable discussing certain issues with a doctor of the same sex. But it might not matter in terms of the actual care you receive. “The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study that demonstrated that patients 65 and older who are treated by female physicians have lower mortality and readmission rates within 30 days of discharge from the hospital,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “However, on an individual level, a doctor’s gender does not dictate his or her competency or compassion.”

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Ask a friend

You may know that it’s not the best idea to trust health advice you find on the web.  But it’s still smart to check out online reviews of your doctor. Better yet, ask someone you know in real life. “Personal referrals can be a great starting place when looking for a physician,” Dr. Tuwatananurak says. “Patients should seek referrals from friends or family who have similar values and priorities in choosing a primary care physician.” Referrals can also help patients find a doctor with specific disease familiarity if necessary.

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Technology can help

Exciting new medical advances are changing patient care. Hopefully, your doctor is on board, creating a more tech-savvy practice for his or her patients. Keeping electronic records, maintaining a patient website with important information, and allowing patients to communicate via email: these are all positives when choosing a doctor. Of course, that’s only if the technology doesn’t replace actual interaction. “A truly genuine doctor-patient relationship is based on a personal level,” Dr. Muto says. “Technology helps in how we communicate, but it shouldn’t replace or change the need for communication.”

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A shabby office is ok

Your doctor’s office can be a funny place—check out these doctors jokes—but you probably don’t want it to look funny. Keep in mind, though, that nice decor doesn’t always mean the office is well-run or the doctor is great. “It could mean that the doctor is investing their resources back to patient care,” Dr. Muto says. “Does a high-tech classroom make a better teacher? You can still teach with a blackboard and chalk.” Although it doesn’t give a good first impression, rundown offices aren’t always a sign to run away. After all, medically old-school practices can still be quality practices.

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Check the hospital

There are some secrets hospitals just don’t want to tell you, (and hopefully you’ll never need to discover them.) But if you have to go to the hospital, choose one where your primary care doctor has privileges. That way, if you need to see a specialist, they’ll be in the same hospital system. “Hospital systems often have central electronic medical record systems, and having access to all of the patient’s medical record can improve continuity, enhance communication between providers, and reduce healthcare costs,” Dr. Nakaishi says. “Ultimately, patients should choose a physician they can trust and based on their ability to provide high quality, evidence-based care.”

Sources
  • Paula Muto, MD, CEO and founder of Uber-Docs, North Andover, MA.
  • Lindsay Nakaishi, MD, MPH, Pittsburgh, PA.
  • Ida Tuwatananurak, DO, Los Angeles, CA.
  • BMJ: "Are Differences in Travel Time or Distance to Healthcare for Adults in Global North Countries Associated with an Impact on Health Outcomes?"