Choosing a Primary Care Doctor

It is important to select a physician that will be able to meet your needs. You want a doctor who will take the time to counsel you at every visit, answer your questions and hold the same beliefs that you do regarding your medications.

Types of Primary Care Doctors

For your primary care doctor, you might want a general or family practitioner, an internist, or a geriatrician.

  1. General practitioners provide health care for a wide range of medical problems. They do not focus on any one area of medicine.
  2. Family practitioners are similar to general practitioners, with extra training to focus on health care for all family members, regardless of age.
  3. An internist is a doctor for adults. Some internists take additional training to become specialists. For example, cardiologists are internists who specialize in diseases of the heart.
  4. Geriatricians specialize in the care of older adults. A geriatrician is trained in family practice or internal medicine, but has additional training in caring for older people.

Getting Started

  1. Start a folder or notebook to keep records of your physician research.
  2. Evaluate your health needs.
    • What type of primary care doctor would you like?
    • Do you need generalist care or a specialist care for a certain condition?
    • What hours/days are you free for appointments?
    • Do you need transportation to/from the doctor’s office?
    • Consider your insurance plan and budget. What can you afford to spend on health care?
    • Insured? If you are in a managed care plan, check the plan's list of doctors first. You can also call your insurance company’s helpline to locate a doctor in your network.
    • Not insured? There are low-cost or free clinics available.
  3. Ask family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers for recommendations.
  4. Ask doctors or other health professionals who work with doctors (i.e. nurses, admin staff, lab technicians, etc.). You can also call a doctor referral service at a hospital which will refer you to doctors on staff.
  5. Check the Doctor Finder service offered by the American Medical Association. This can give you lists of doctors, by specialty, who practice near you. You can also check on training and board certification.
  6. If you're moving to a new area or home, ask your current doctor or insurance provider for recommendations in that area. Remember to ask to transfer your medical records once you have chosen a new doctor.

Practice Basics

Call the offices of the doctors or practices you are considering. Here is a “starter list” of questions to help you narrow down your choices.

  1. Is the doctor accepting new patients? How soon are appointments available?
  2. May I bring a family member to my appointment?
  3. What happens if I cancel an appointment? Will I still have to pay?
  4. Does the doctor belong to my HMO or other managed care plan?
  5. Does the doctor accept my insurance plan or Medicare/Medicaid?
  6. What are the fees for the various services?
  7. Where is the practice located? Will it be easy for me to get there from both home and work? Is it accessible by public transportation?
  8. Is the doctor’s office open at times that are convenient for me?
  9. On what days, dates and/or holidays is the center closed?
  10. How long has the doctor been in that location?
  11. What kind of patients does the doctor usually see?
  12. Does the doctor have specialized training in, or is familiar with, ________ (my condition)?
  13. Does the doctor have any practice limitations? For example, does a pediatrician accept only infants or only adolescents? Does the doctor practice only gynecology, not obstetrics?
  14. Does the doctor see patients at home? In nursing homes? In hospice?
  15. Do the doctor and staff members speak the language that I am most comfortable speaking?

    Once you have narrowed your choices, make an appointment with the doctor.

At Your Appointment

Here is a list of questions to consider while at your appointment. Consider bringing someone with to help ask questions and understand the information.

Questions for the Office Staff

  1. Are appointments on-time? What is the average waiting time?
  2. Does the doctor give advice over the phone or via e-mail for common medical problems?
  3. During what hours and under what circumstances can I speak directly with the doctor?
  4. If I call with a question about my care, how soon will the doctor or nurse return my call?
  5. If it’s after-hours, who should I contact or where should I go for urgent care?
  6. If my physician is out of town, who fills in and where is that doctor's office located? If the doctor works in a group, am I comfortable with being seen by one of the practice partners?
  7. What hospital(s) is the doctor’s practice affiliated with? If there is no affiliation, ask why not.
  8. Does the doctor’s practice work closely with a specific pharmacy at all?
  9. Does the doctor or nurse call the pharmacy or am I responsible for having prescriptions filled?
  10. Where are routine x-rays and laboratory studies performed? Can these be done in-office, or will you have to go to an outside laboratory?
  11. Does the office send out reminder e-mails, phone calls or postcards for regular check-ups?

Questions for the Doctor

  1. What is your philosophy about... (disease, complementary treatments, newest drugs, what ever you have learned about)?
  2. WHN Reader TIP: What's Your Philosophy?

    Choose a doctor(s) who have the same philosophy as you. If you believe non-invasive, natural treatments should be used before more invasive ones, find a physician who agrees. If you believe that vaccinations are dangerous, find a pediatrician (or holistic health practitioner like an ND or chiropractor) who agrees.

    If you want to be on the cutting edge and participate in clinical trials, then find a physician with good ties to said trials so you can up your chance of participation. Fighting with doctors whose philosophy differs from yours is counter productive as well. It is expensive to "test drive" physicians and holistic practitioners, but it helps a lot, when you really are sick to be in synch before you start -- Nan Andrews Amish, CA

  3. Are you board certified?
  4. Can I see a copy of your license or other certification?

    WHN TIP: Licenses

    Find out whether they are licensed in your state. Click here for a list of the state medical boards and their Web sites.

  5. What medical school and residency programs did you attend?
  6. How many years of experience do you have?
  7. Do you have specialized training in _________ (Name the area of your concern: i.e. diabetes, heart disease, etc.)?

    WHN TIP: Board Certification

    Research whether they are board-certified in the appropriate specialty. Click here for a list of the state medical boards and their Web sites.

  8. What’s the best way for me to prepare for an office visit with you? For example, should I bring my questions in writing?
  9. Would you provide your instructions in writing for me?
  10. Remember to also ask any questions regarding your health matters. See Get Prepared - Doctor Visit for a list of health questions you might want to ask.

After Your Appointment

After you leave and you have forgotten to ask your doctor or staff something, don't be afraid to contact your doctor's office and get your question answered.

Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your doctor and your appointment experience.

  1. Was the staff friendly and helpful?
  2. Did the doctor take notes and ask about my symptoms, family and personal history and current medications?
  3. Did the doctor really listen to my questions and answer them in a way that I understand?
  4. Was the doctor respectful and considerate?
  5. Did the doctor ask me questions?
  6. Did the doctor address the health problem I came with?
  7. Did the doctor ask me my preferences about different kinds of treatments and prescriptions?
  8. Did the doctor seem rushed or was the doctor attentive and willing to spend time with me?
  9. Would I prefer this doctor to be the primary care doctor for my entire family or should I select different doctors for each family member?
  10. Do I feel comfortable with my decision?

Trust your own reactions when deciding whether this doctor is the right one for you. But you also may want to give the relationship some time to develop. It takes more than one visit for you and your doctor to get to know each other.

After you’ve decided on a doctor, remember to contact your previous doctor’s office and ask for your records to be transferred. You may have to sign paperwork and wait a few weeks before the records arrive at the new practice.

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. These tips are from doctors, nurses and people who have shared their real life advice; always check with a doctor or other appropriate medical professional you trust before making any healthcare changes.

Updated: 5/2009