If you are new to an area you may need find a doctor for yourself or family. You also may be looking for a new doctor because you have enrolled in a new health plan and must choose a primary care physician (PCP).
Finding the best doctor to help you with your healthcare needs is very important. The relationship you develop with your PCP greatly influences the health decisions you make and your wellbeing.
Some people want physicians who tell them what to do, but given the option, most of us want a PCP who supports our desire to take an active role in our health care. When choosing a doctor, consider the following:
The Physician’s Medical Education
Medicine is a challenging profession that requires a commitment to lifelong learning. Most physicians begin their education by completing four years of college and then attending one of more than 125 American medical schools where they learn about the intricacies of the human body as well as the cause, treatment, and prevention of diseases.
During medical school, students learn how to evaluate the health of a patient, diagnose diseases and other health conditions, plan and implement treatment, and evaluate how their interventions work to help patients. Upon completion of medical school, students earn a medical doctor degree (MD).
Following medical school, nearly all physicians enter a specialty training program – also known as a residency – to get further experience in one of 24 specialty areas. During the training program, which can last from three to seven years, the resident works under the supervision of physicians who are experienced in that specialty. Examples of recognized specialties include: pediatrics, internal medicine, family practice, surgery, and orthopedics.
Following their residency, doctors may begin their own medical practice, work for a hospital or large group of physicians, join the faculty of a medical school to teach and do medical research, or continue their training in one of more than 75 subspecialties - such as cardiology, pediatric neurology, and hand surgery.
Throughout their careers, physicians keep on learning by participating in continuing education activities, which may be required to maintain their state medical license or participation in a PPO or HMO network. Continuing education also ensures that practicing physicians stay up to date with constantly changing information about the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.
This is the most common educational path for doctors in this country. There are many well-qualified physicians who have graduated from a College of Osteopathy and receive a doctor of osteopathy (DO) degree. Other physicians study medicine outside the United States and return for further specialty training. Many of these physicians go on to become board-certified, as described below.
After completing residency training, physicians are eligible for board certification in a medical specialty. When selecting a physician, look for one who is board certified. This means the physician has successfully completed an approved specialty training program and has passed an exam that assessed the doctor’s knowledge, skills, and experience.
Not all physicians are board certified. A doctor who does not have board certification may not have taken the certification examination or may have taken the test and failed.
A Dr. Mike Tip: It is important to remember that things like caring and empathy cannot be measured by an exam and many excellent and compassionate physicians are not board certified.
Access to the Physician and the Healthcare Services You Need
Before you schedule an appointment with a new PCP, ask—and make sure to get satisfactory answers to—these questions:
- Are the doctor’s office hours and location convenient?
- How long does it take to get an appointment for a checkup or routine care?
- Who covers for the doctor after hours or when the doctor is on vacation?
- Are the doctor’s office and nursing staff courteous and respectful of your privacy?
- Is the doctor affiliated with a local hospital? If you prefer a specific hospital, is your doctor associated with it?
- Is the doctor part of your health plan’s physician network?
- If needed, does the doctor accept Medicaid or Medicare?
The Doctor’s Demographics
Demographics is a term meaning 'population characteristics' that includes things such as age, gender, race and ethnicity, religion, and family status. Some of these may be important to you when choosing a physician.
For example, many women will only see a woman for routine care or prefer someone around their own age. On the other hand, others can relate to any physician who is caring and listens—age and gender are less important.
Some people also are more comfortable with a physician who may have a similar set of values or life experience.
Choose a Doctor Who Communicates With You
Try to find a PCP who will listen to you and help you sort through your healthcare issues and concerns. Your doctor should take the time to answer your questions and, if necessary, develop a treatment plan that you understand and can follow.
As a patient, you have the right to voice your comments and concerns, and to ask questions. But, you also have a responsibility to listen, provide the information the doctor needs to make a diagnosis and treatment plan, and follow the doctor’s recommendations if you feel they are appropriate.
Your PCP should also encourage you to learn more about your health and any medical conditions you have. If the doctor does not have time to provide the level of detail you need, it is important that other healthcare professionals in the office have time to talk with you and offer an appropriate list of health websites, books, videos, and support group contact information.
Finally, you want to choose a doctor you trust and with whom you are comfortable. Your decision, in choosing among physicians who are all well-trained, may come down to personality and style.
After meeting the doctor, if you feel comfortable, trust your instincts—you have most likely found the right match.