So you’ve decided to choose a primary care physician (PCP). Whether you’ve done this before or you’re choosing your first doctor, it’s important to carefully consider the type of doctor you’d like to work with.
Ideally, your PCP will be one of your primary health resources, will see you when you get sick, and will get to know you over time. Because you’re trying to forge a lasting relationship, it’s important to choose wisely, and there are many different factors you might want to consider. Consider the following to find a doctor that’s right for you.
One of the first things you’ll want to think about when choosing a PCP is his or her education and training. A well-educated and trained doctor can be a great resource to have on your side when it comes to managing your health care needs. When you’re researching doctors, find out where they went to medical school — you can then look up the program on U.S. News and World Report or another ranking system to learn about the programs offered at that school.
“Look for current board certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine or the American Academy of Family Physicians,” suggests Dr. Marc Itskowitz, recognized by Pittsburgh Magazine as one of the region’s best Internal Medicine physicians, and also Director of the Center for Perioperative Medicine for the Allegheny Health Network. “When you meet a physician for the first time, ask about the ways he or she stays up to date in the field. Do they take continuing education courses? Are they affiliated with an academic institution?”
Of course, it’s also important to consider where your potential doctor did his or her residency. A residency is a required post-medical-school training period when a doctor works in a hospital, learning on their feet. As author Kate Lowenstein explains at the Huffington Post, “A residency is where physicians get their on-the-job training, and the other MDs they practice with seem to affect their clinical style more than where they went to school.” Getting more information about a potential doctor’s education and training can help you find a well-qualified doctor.
Your PCP relationship will likely be one that lasts for many years once you find the right fit. An important factor to consider is your doctor’s personality. The type of personality that’s the right fit will vary from person to person. For example, some people prefer an authoritative, “here’s what we’re going to do” doctor, but I’d rather have a doctor that I feel comfortable having a discussion with. That way, I feel like I’m taking more of a role in my health and health care.
It’s also important to see how the front desk area of your doctor’s office operates. Are they disorganized or on top of things? Are they professional and prompt, or can you expect a long wait every time you call in?
For example, if you know that you don’t typically have time to wait long at the doctor’s office, don’t choose a doctor that routinely runs over on previous appointments. This issue may be fine for some people but not for others.
You may not realize these things about a doctor or their practice until you’ve had an appointment or two — but it’s okay to change your mind and pick another doctor if you’re unsatisfied. Sometimes, you may need to meet with a doctor a few times before deciding if it’s a good fit. Feel free to take your time and try out a “sample appointment” (for example, by getting a yearly physical or annual gynecological exam).
Likewise, your doctor’s communication preferences may determine whether he or she is a good fit for you. If you like to call in, but you know the front desk often puts people on hold, this can be frustrating over the long run.
If you prefer to email, does your doctor communicate with his or her patients that way? Does the office have a web portal where you can receive messages quickly and on your own time? When you’re looking for a PCP, make sure their communication style matches yours and you’ll have much less frustration when you’re trying to get in touch.
Did you know there are different types of PCP doctors, from gynecologists (who may function as a PCP for women) to geriatricians (who work with older people)? You might want to explore different types of PCPs, who may have a specialty that’s valuable to you (or when you’re looking for a doctor for a child or parent). Here are just a few of the specialties you might want to look for:
While nurse practitioners and physician assistants are not doctors, they often have the skills and expertise to help with many common health care issues. If your doctor’s office has these medical professionals on staff, they might be able to see you more quickly when you need care.
It’s important to get a sense of a doctor’s availability up front. Some people may prefer a more popular doctor — after all, there’s usually a reason patients are lining up to see them. However, this can reduce a doctor’s available time to spend with patients. You’ll need to determine if you’d rather have a chance to be seen right away, or if a more popular doctor offers something special you’re willing to wait for.
Regardless of a doctor’s popularity, it all boils down to you! Choosing a PCP isn’t an easy decision, but with some research and a little self-searching, you’ll be able to find Dr. Right.
We asked Dr. Itskowitz which of these aspects he’d consider most important when selecting a primary care physician. He replied:
“I would emphasize availability and communication skills as the key criteria. Is the physician able to see you in a timely fashion for acute problems? What kind of coverage is available when the doctor is not available? Do you understand what the doctor tells you? How does the doctor communicate the results of diagnostic testing? Do they usually run on time or do they run late? How many days per week are they in the office seeing patients?”
Marc Itskowitz, MD, FACP, is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine. He is also Director of the Center for Perioperative Medicine for the Allegheny Health Network. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Cornell University and received his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania. He practices internal medicine with Pittsburgh General Medicine Associates and his clinical interests include travel medicine, cardiovascular risk reduction, thromboembolic disease, and perioperative medicine. Dr. Itskowitz has been recognized by Pittsburgh Magazine as one of the region’s best Internal Medicine physicians. He has also served as the Internal Medicine team physician for the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2003.
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