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There’s a lot of things in life that are better tackled in teams — big projects, winning a sports competition, and keeping you healthy. We’re serious!
Your healthcare team (or the group of doctors and specialists you routinely visit for your health needs) are essential players who address your concerns, treat symptoms, and like we said, keep you healthy. And the doctor that’s usually your first line of defense is your primary care doctor, but it’s one that’s often overlooked. Over 25% of Americans didn’t have a primary care provider in recent years — with that number expected to keep rising.
To David Levine, Harvard Medical School instructor, “Primary care is the thread that runs through the fabric of all healthcare.” So no matter if you need to change your primary care doctor or find one to get established with, the important thing is that you do. Let’s change that statistic one annual physical at a time, shall we?
Keep reading for our five tips to choose a primary care doctor — and why you shouldn’t settle until you’ve found the right one.
Why visit a primary care physician?
Primary care doctors can do a little bit of everything — they practice general healthcare and address a variety of health concerns for their patients. They’re typically the first doctors you visit if you have a health concern, need bloodwork done, or get your annual physical (that’s fully covered by your health insurance!). For those with a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO), you must first see a primary care doctor before seeing any other healthcare provider.
Many people stay with their primary care doctor for years. (Which is pretty beneficial, as your doctor will be able to more accurately determine your baseline and necessary treatments if things begin to feel off track.)
You can visit a primary care provider for:
Treatment of common illnesses (like cold and flu)
Early detection of illnesses or conditions
Management of chronic or long-lasting conditions
A referral to a specialist (like a dermatologist)
How to choose a primary care physician
1. Ask around for recommendations.
A primary care physician can help you reach your best health potential, so it’s important that you feel comfortable. If you have local friends, family members, co-workers, or even specialists you already see, chances are they have a good primary care recommendation (or a few!). Bonus: your co-workers likely have the same health insurance, so you’ll know right off the bat if the doctor is in-network. Reviews online are a reliable source too, but keep in mind that unhappy patients are more likely to leave a review than happy patients.
2. Determine which primary care physicians are in-network.
Doctor networks are the facilities, providers, and suppliers your health insurance plan has contracted with to provide healthcare services at special, discounted rates. This means you will pay less out of pocket and get the most out of your insurance.
So once you’ve identified your short list of doctors, check to see if they are in-network. You can typically do this by logging in to your insurance’s online portal. Note: while you can technically visit an out-of-network doctor if you want, keep in mind that you might have to pay for services in full or incur an “out-of-network charge.” (The way this is handled varies by plan.)
3. Keep your health needs in mind.
Healthcare is deeply personal — and looks a little different to everyone based on needs, wants, and preferences. For instance: do you prefer a more alternative or traditional approach to medicine? Are you all for telehealth, or like to visit doctors the old-fashioned way?
Not only are your preferences important, but your medical history is something to keep in mind, too.
Consider these questions (and your preferences) when choosing a primary care provider:
Do they offer virtual or telehealth visits?
Do they offer alternative treatment styles?
What type of relationship does the physician have with patients?
Do you prefer seeing a male or female physician?
Do they offer weekend or evening appointments?
Who will see you if they aren’t available?
Do they have experience treating your medical conditions?
4. Think about logistics.
If you live in a city, a doctor’s office 10 miles away could mean a lot of traffic and a stressful round trip. But if you live in the suburbs, it’s a pretty convenient find. It’s important to consider the logistics of your doctor choice, like where the office is located and how much time you will need to take off work to make your visit. This is especially important if you know you’ll need to make multiple trips (i.e., getting bloodwork and returning for a follow-up appointment) in a short amount of time.
It’s also important to know what hospital the doctor admits patients to and where procedures like labs, x-rays, and minor surgeries are performed.
5. Visit the doctor.
You know how the saying goes: you’ll never know until you try. Once you think you’ve found your new primary care provider, it’s time to make an appointment and see for yourself.
While you’re in the office, take note of the environment. Was the receptionist warm and friendly? Were you assisted in a timely manner? How long did you have to wait to see the doctor after you arrived?
And of course, consider how your visit with the doctor went. Did you feel comfortable with them? Were all your concerns addressed? Can this doctor meet your unique healthcare needs?
If you’re feeling confident you found a winner, congrats! On the flip side, if you’re having doubts, don’t hesitate to get back to your short list. Trust your instincts and look for a new provider who is a better fit. Your healthcare wants aren’t for compromising — the right primary care doctor IS out there!
What to expect when you visit a primary care physician
If it’s been a while since you’ve visited the doctor, no sweat. (You’re taking charge now, that’s what matters!) So if you’re unsure of what to expect before arriving, keep reading.
If you’re changing primary care doctors, you first might want to request your medical records be transferred to your new one before your appointment. If that’s not possible, keep this information top of mind:
Any medical procedures or surgeries you’ve had
Major illnesses and chronic conditions
Medications you’re currently taking or recently stopped
Your family’s health history
This information can give your doctor a great base to start with. The first appointment with your new primary care physician will be focused on discussing your health biography up until this point and addressing your current healthcare needs. Follow-up visits (if you need them) will be more specific.
Before going in, make a list of questions, concerns, symptoms, or anything else you don’t want to forget to bring up too. Preparation is key!
Establishing a primary care doctor can be important down the road to compare your medical history and detect any changes year after year. No matter if you’ve never seen one or need to switch things up, it’s never too late to take a proactive stance on your health and find the right doctor to help you live your healthiest life yet. And thanks to your health insurance, getting in the habit of scheduling your annual physical with an in-network primary care doctor is a fully-covered service — a win-win all around and definitely worth the search!