Tips for Choosing a Primary Care Doctor
Dec 29, 2022 | Family Medicine | Share:
There are several reasons you might need a new primary care doctor. Whether you’ve never had a primary care doctor before or you’ve moved to a new area, choosing a new doctor can be easier said than done.
Change can be hard, and it can be scary to think about starting with a new doctor. Our guide to choosing a primary care doctor is designed to make that leap a little easier.
What is a Primary Care Doctor?
Primary care doctors can go by a number of different names: an internist, general practitioner, and family doctor are all types of primary care doctors. A pediatrician is essentially a primary care doctor for kids.
Your primary care doctor is the main doctor you go to for wellness checkups, sick visits, and management of ongoing health concerns. You may see other doctors and specialists such as an urgent care doctor for the flu on a Saturday or a gastroenterologist, but your primary care doctor is your medical home base.
Because you see the same doctor over an extended period of time, you’re able to develop a relationship with your primary care doctor. Most primary care doctors consider themselves your healthcare partner whether you’re relatively healthy or have several ongoing medical concerns.
Why You Need a Primary Care Doctor
Everyone needs a primary care doctor. Believe it or not, people who regularly see a primary care doctor are healthier than those who do not.
Individuals who have a primary care doctor are more likely to:1
- Have regular checkups and screenings
- Stay up-to-date on needed vaccinations
- Fill their prescriptions
- Have better access to healthcare, including specialists
- Report better healthcare experiences
Your primary care doctor also helps coordinate your healthcare. They can monitor and treat chronic medical conditions, and they can ensure you have appropriate access to specialists when you need them. By having a primary care doctor, you always have an advocate for you within the healthcare system.
You’ve probably heard the proverb that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s definitely true here. Through regular wellness visits, your primary care doctor is able to identify and monitor potential health concerns before they become full-blown health problems. As an added bonus, most insurance plans cover your annual check-up and other preventive care (such as your annual flu shot) at no cost to you.
How to Choose a New Primary Care Doctor
Those who’ve never had a primary care doctor or who are new to an area may be overwhelmed by the number of options to consider. If your doctor has recently moved or retired, it may feel like you’ll never find another doctor you like as much. Or if your previous primary care doctor wasn’t a good fit for you, you may feel frustrated at the prospect of finding someone new.
No matter what your reason is for needing a new primary care doctor, it can be challenging to know where to start. But when finding a new doctor, everyone will need to consider insurance coverage, convenience, communication, and personal healthcare needs.
While insurance coverage certainly isn’t the only thing to consider when choosing a new doctor, it should probably be the first thing you evaluate. If you have health insurance, you’ll need to find a doctor who is an in-network provider. No matter how much you like a particular doctor, if you can’t use your health insurance on visits, they’re not a good fit for you.
If you don’t have health insurance or use a health-sharing plan, you’ll need to ask a prospective primary care doctor about their self-pay options. Your doctor should be able to give you information about the costs of typical wellness visits, sick visits, labs, and vaccinations.
Everyone is busy, so it’s important to find a primary care doctor that is convenient for you to visit. You visit your primary care doctor annually for wellness visits as well as for other non-urgent (but important) health issues or changes to your health. Ideally, you’ll also want to see your primary care doctor when you’re sick.
If you have to drive an hour and fight traffic to see your doctor or have a three-week wait for an appointment, you’ll probably get frustrated quickly. You’ll need to consider location, clinic hours, and availability when choosing a new primary care doctor. Make finding a primary care doctor near where you live or work a priority.
Communication is a key part of any relationship, and the relationship with your primary care doctor is no different. Although you’ll certainly communicate with the doctor during your appointments, you’ll also want to consider options for communication outside of scheduled appointments.
Some things to consider include:
- Questions in between office visits: Some questions for your doctor can be answered quickly without needing to schedule an appointment. If you do have a question for your doctor, how does your doctor receive these? Is there a message line where you can leave a message with their nurse for a callback? Can you message your doctor through a patient portal?
- Telehealth options: Telehealth or virtual doctor visits are a great option for minor health issues or for medication refills. However, not all doctors provide this service. If telehealth visits with your doctor are a priority to you, ask a potential primary care doctor about the options for telehealth.
- Personal communication: You won’t know how a doctor communicates with you until you schedule an appointment. When you visit a primary care doctor for the first time, you’ll want to find one that communicates in a way that’s easy for you to understand, listens attentively, and values your concerns.
Your Healthcare Needs
If you’re young and healthy with relatively few health issues, you’ll probably be looking for a doctor that is more of a logistical and relational fit. However, those with ongoing health concerns will want to find a doctor who has experience with treating their conditions.
Primary care doctors are internists who are particularly good at looking at the body as a whole and should be able to treat most typical health concerns such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Individuals with more unique health concerns such as long COVID or autoimmune diseases will want to find out how a potential provider approaches treatment.
How to Learn More about a Primary Care Doctor
You’ll need to do a little investigating before scheduling an initial appointment with a new primary care doctor. Once you’ve found a primary care doctor you’d like to learn more about, the best thing you can do is call their office. Their front desk can likely answer most of your questions about insurance, scheduling, and other concerns.
Your doctor’s website may also contain helpful details. However, it’s important to note that there is a difference between primary care services and relationship-based primary care. Many urgent care clinics offer primary care services such as check-ups, screenings, and wellness visits to walk-in patients at their clinics. These are valuable services that are great for individuals who are in-between primary care doctors, but they aren’t a replacement for relationship-based care.
Relationship-based primary care can exist within an urgent care clinic, but you should always verify that this is a doctor you can schedule appointments with, see consistently, and build a relationship with over an extended period of time.
Once you’ve talked with the front office, the best way to learn more about a new doctor is to schedule an appointment. You’re never obligated to stay with a primary care doctor after an initial appointment, and this appointment can serve as an interview to help you determine whether this doctor is a good fit for you.
How to Prepare for Your First Appointment
When visiting a primary care doctor for the first time, there are a few things you can do to make your visit a little easier. The most important thing you can do is schedule an appointment when you’re well. Don’t visit a new doctor for the first time when you’re battling the flu; instead, wait until your infection has cleared to make your appointment.
Waiting until you’re well allows you to focus on getting to know your doctor and discuss goals and priorities for your health. This is a great time to ask your doctor questions, so it may be helpful to bring a list of your questions and concerns so you don’t forget anything important.
If you take any medications (including over-the-counter medications or supplements), be sure to bring a list of these and include the dose, prescriber (if applicable), route, reason prescribed, and how frequently you take it. You don’t need to bring the actual medications themselves; this list provides all the information your doctor will need.
You can also make some notes about your personal and family medical history to share with your doctor. If you have medical records or imaging results on hand, you can bring these; however, your new doctor can also request these from other doctors and specialists as needed.
Regardless of your medical history, choosing a primary care doctor is personal. If you’re looking for a new primary care doctor in Birmingham, all MedHelp clinics feature providers offering relationship-based primary care. Many of these providers also see urgent care patients, so if you loved your urgent care visit, your urgent care doctor may be able to become your primary care doctor.
To learn more about the primary care doctors at MedHelp, call the MedHelp location near you. The front desk can help you find a primary care doctor that fits your schedule and meets your needs.
MedHelp clinics in Birmingham provide relationship-based primary care services in addition to walk-in urgent care. Primary care doctors are accepting new patients at each of our five locations. Our office staff can help you choose a doctor that fits your schedule and meets your needs.
1 Levine, D. M., MD, Landon, B. E., MD, & Linder, J. A., MD. (2019, January 28). Quality and Experience of Outpatient Care in the United States for Adults With or Without Primary Care. Retrieved December 15, 2022 from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2721037