From mending broken bones to managing preventative care, the primary care physician (PCP) has become a staple of our modern healthcare system. Often the first point of contact when health issues surface, the PCP helps patients with initial diagnoses and provides comprehensive care for individuals and entire families. Primary care physicians treat patients for years, or even decades, and become compassionate advocates and trusted health advisors.
What is a Primary Care Physician (PCP)?
Acting as a medical “home base,” the primary care doctor addresses basic health needs, answers health questions, and provides long-term care as patients move through the stages of their lives. Primary care physicians also provide referrals to specialists if the need arises.
Primary care physicians provide general care, which may include:
- Preventive care
- Long-term care
- Routine checkups and screenings
- Acute and chronic illness treatment
- Basic diagnoses and treatment
- Referrals to specialists
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, PCPs also provide health maintenance, patient education, disease prevention, and counseling in various healthcare settings.
10 Steps to Finding and Choosing a Primary Care Physician
Your primary care physician acts as a long-term member of your extended family, and an advisor for all things health and wellness. For this reason, it’s important to find one you can trust and feel comfortable with, someone who can become a compassionate health advocate for you and your family.
If you are looking for a new PCP, we’ve constructed a 10-step process for finding and choosing a primary care physician. At the end of this guide, we also provide a handy checklist that summarizes these steps.
2. Choose a Primary Care Specialty
Primary care physicians may fall into several categories depending on the type of patients they treat and/or their chosen specialty.
Family practice physicians treat patients of all ages and provide comprehensive care. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, of all medical specialties, family medicine best meets the definition of primary care: first-contact, continuous, comprehensive, and coordinated care to populations undifferentiated by sex, disease, or organ system.
Internal medicine doctors (internists) treat adults only and focus on conditions that affect the internal organs. Though internists provide comprehensive care, they may also focus on a specific subspecialty of internal medicine such as infectious disease, immunology, or oncology.
Pediatricians are primary care physicians who treat children, from infants to teenagers, and provide physical, behavioral, and mental care. Pediatricians may also focus on a subspecialty such as pediatric immunology, pediatric cardiology, adolescent health, etc.
In addition to the above, a primary care physician may also be a general practitioner (general care for all ages), OB-GYN (obstetrics and gynecology), nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or a geriatrician (senior care).
Note that the above specialties fall under the primary care umbrella. If you have a condition that falls outside of the blanket of general care, your doctor may refer you to see a specialist who has expertise treating your particular condition.
Alternative Treatment Styles
Most doctors in the U.S. practice allopathic or traditional Western medicine, which means they assess symptoms and treat patients using drugs, therapies, surgeries, and other lifestyle changes.
If you are looking for an alternative treatment style, you may be interested in one of the following:
Functional medicine: Functional medicine doctors approach healthcare holistically, and consider the body as a whole, instead of a sum of parts. Functional medicine doctors are not specialists. They treat the body as one entity and focus on identifying the root cause of disease instead of managing symptoms.
Holistic medicine: Holistic medicine practitioners also treat holistically, but they may focus on Eastern practices such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, or massage therapy.
Osteopathic medicine (DO): Osteopathic medical doctors offer more holistic care, including manipulating the musculoskeletal system to restore function and help the body heal itself.
Note that some of these doctors may be considered out-of-network by your insurance plan, so double-check your insurance coverage before you make an appointment. If your insurance doesn’t cover your doctor, alternative physicians typically provide superbills for you to submit to insurance. Any money that comes out of your pocket may go toward your out-of-network deductible.
If you choose to work with an alternative doctor, ensure they have the proper credentials to treat you, and are licensed to practice medicine in your state. We will talk more about how to verify a doctor’s credentials later in this article.
2. Compile a Shortlist of Doctors
Once you determine the type of primary care physician you want to see, it’s time to search for the right doctor. Start by looking for a few primary care doctors affiliated with your insurance (in-network for your insurance plan or out-of-network if you choose) and add them to a shortlist.
Some other factors to consider as you compile this shortlist:
- Office hours – Will you need to take off work? Does this provider see patients on weekends or have certain days where it’s possible to schedule evening appointments?
- Office location – Do you want to see a PCP who practices close to your home, office, or another convenient location? Choose a provider who practices in your desired location, and consider parking and traffic. Patients build long-term relationships with their PCPs, so you may be seeing this doctor frequently, especially if you have a large family.
- Days and location – Verify which days the doctor practices in a particular location, as many doctors work in multiple offices throughout the week. This information also may not be listed on a provider’s insurance profile.
- Insurance affiliation – Call the provider’s office to confirm they take your insurance.
- Accepts new patients – Is the doctor accepting new patients?
- Appointments available – Popular doctors often get booked months ahead of time.
- Telemedicine – Is the office set up for telemedicine if a patient can’t visit due to health concerns?
3. Ask for Recommendations
In addition to looking for doctors via your insurance website, get recommendations from trusted friends or family members.
- Recommendations – Ask local friends, family members, and co-workers you trust to recommend some PCPs they like. If your current physician is retiring or moving, ask this doctor for a referral.
- Online reviews – While online reviews help evaluate factors such as staff friendliness and wait times, they are not reliable when assessing a doctor’s expertise or experience in a specific condition. Online reviews can also be fraudulent, so we recommend you don’t consider them too heavily when making your decision. Here are the biggest problems with doctor reviews.
At this stage, you likely have a shortlist of doctors you can potentially see. In steps 4-6 below, you will start narrowing down your list according to the criteria important to you.
4. Check Hospital Affiliation
Is the doctor affiliated with your chosen hospital? Does your insurance cover admissions to this hospital? Confirm that your insurance covers the hospitals with which your doctor is affiliated. If you have a hospital preference, ensure your chosen doctor has an affiliation with this provider.
If your doctor recommends procedures that necessitate a hospital visit, you might want to review the hospital’s record. Leapfrog is a nonprofit organization that gathers hospital data and publishes it to the public. The site provides information on safety protocols, surgery problems, safe or unsafe medication administration, error prevention, maternity, and pediatric care, and more.
5. Check Unique Factors Important to You
Our recommendations above generally apply to most patients, but you may be looking for specific traits in a primary care physician. Before you choose a doctor, write down what you consider important as it relates to the patient-doctor experience. Here are some items to consider:
- Proper experience – Does the doctor have prior experience treating your pre-existing conditions?
- Individual or group practice – Which do you prefer? Some patients like to see doctors who are part of a group, so if the doctor is out, they can easily see another doctor.
- Laboratories or x-rays on-site – You may prefer getting lab work and testing done at the same place you see your doctor. This isn’t always possible.
- Languages spoken
- Preferred gender
- Years in practice – Some patients prefer to work with doctors who have been practicing for a decade or more.
Go through each item from your list and verify that each doctor matches your chosen criteria. If not, eliminate them from the list.
6. Verify the Doctor’s Background
At this stage, you may have narrowed down your list to about two to three doctors. The next step is to verify the doctors’ background and credentials if this is important to you.
A practicing doctor will rarely have a disciplinary record (convicted of a crime, suspended or medically negligent), but it does happen. If you are concerned about the rare occasion of medical negligence or you want to verify credentials, take the following steps.
When physicians attain board-level certification in a specialty (cardiologists, oncologists), they demonstrate proficiency in that specialty and can now treat patients as specialists in this discipline. If you see a specialist, verify their credentials by visiting the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) website.
Below are additional medical boards that certify physicians:
- The American Board of Physician Specialties
- The American Board of Plastic Surgery
- American Osteopathic Association
To find disciplinary actions against a doctor, first, identify the states in which the doctor obtained their medical license via the Federation of State Medical Boards website.
Contact the state’s medical board or visit their website to search the doctor’s disciplinary record (if there is one). Find the contact details of each state’s medical board contact details via this website.
Suggested Reading: How to Find Out About a Doctor’s Reputation
7. Prepare Before Your Doctor Visit
It’s time to make an appointment to see your primary care physician. Even though you selected a doctor, the evaluation process will continue before, during, and after your visit. In the next steps, we will discuss how to get the most out of your doctor’s visit so you can evaluate whether you want to work with this doctor for the long-term.
What are your health goals? What do you hope to learn from your doctor’s appointment? Know before you go! Prepare notes and questions before your visit so you can get the most out of your time.
You may not know the answers to these questions before visiting your doctor, but if you prepare them beforehand, you can bring them to your appointment. Once you compile your questions, prioritize them so you get the most important answers to you if time does not permit you to cover them all.
The questions you ask will depend on your unique situation, but here are some examples:
If your doctor gave you a diagnosis and/or treatment plan:
- Is there a possibility my diagnosis could be related to another condition?
- Where can I get more information about my diagnosis?
- Have you treated many other patients with my diagnosis?
- Should I see a specialist for my diagnosis?
- Should I get a second opinion on my diagnosis?
- Why are you suggesting this particular treatment plan?
- Are there any risks associated with this treatment plan?
- Are there any risks and/or side effects associated with this medication?
- Are there less expensive options for this medication?
- How long will this treatment last?
- Are there any other treatment options?
- How can I get a hold of you after hours?
If you are concerned about preventative health:
- Do I have any risk factors for disease?
- How can I prevent disease?
- How can I live a healthier lifestyle?
- How often should I get preventative screening at my age?
- What type of preventative screening should I get and how often?
- I am feeling anxious/sad/apprehensive. Is this normal?
Patients sometimes dismiss symptoms because they think they are insignificant or typical of someone their age. But, every detail helps. The more you communicate with your doctor, the better they can help you.
Take some time to think about your symptoms and what you deem abnormal. Prepare this list before you visit your doctor and bring it with you along with your questions.
Be vocal, and don’t be afraid to tell your doctor all of your symptoms, whether physical, mental, or behavioral. Be transparent about any habits or vices you deem negative. Your doctor may help, and they will also need to be aware of drug interactions.
To make your doctor’s visit more effective, use MediFind’s Symptom Checker, a tool that suggests possible diagnoses based on your symptoms. Bring this list of possible diagnoses to discuss with your doctor.
Bring a list of the medications and supplements you take, and a list of allergies and past surgeries.
8. Evaluate During Your Doctor Visit
You made an appointment to see your doctor; you arrive prepared, list in hand. Congratulations on being an advocate for your health and taking steps to be fully prepared!
The evaluation process continues. During your visit, note how you feel, how well you communicate with your doctor, and think about your overall impression.
- Are you comfortable with the facilities and staff?
- Do you feel you can trust your doctor to manage your healthcare?
- Do you feel at ease?
- Are you both in agreement with the treatment options and lifestyle choices?
- Do you feel comfortable asking questions?
Each primary care physician will have a different personality, mannerisms, and communication style. Respect and integrity are expected, and at a minimum, the best PCPs will possess the following traits:
How does the doctor respond to your concerns? Do they steer the conversation and exert control, or let you take the lead and express your concerns?
Notice your dialogue and how engaged doctors are with your communication. They shouldn’t speak over you or stop you from talking. Your primary care physician should also be concerned enough about your needs to listen to what bothers you and consider these factors when devising treatment options.
Though regular doctor consultations in the US average about 20 minutes, you should never feel rushed. Ensure the doctor answers priority questions before you leave the office.
Comfortable with patient autonomy
When you exercise autonomy, you exert more control over your healthcare journey by educating yourself, preparing for doctor visits, and getting second opinions, if needed. Essentially, you make the final decisions on your health choices without coercion from your healthcare provider.
Note that this doesn’t mean that you do not consider your doctor’s expertise when making decisions. When you exercise patient autonomy, and your doctor is comfortable with it, you establish a collaborative relationship. Doctors offer their expertise but you both collaborate on the outcome instead of it being a one-way conversation.
Do you fully understand your diagnosis and treatment options? Did your doctor explain in enough detail that you know and comprehend what was said? Your primary care physician should be willing to fully explain why they came to a particular conclusion without confusing you.
Empathetic and humble
It’s impossible for physicians to be experts in the thousands of diseases that exist, so it’s not uncommon for a physician to face a medical scenario that requires additional expertise. A doctor should be humble enough to admit when your condition warrants seeing a specialist.
9. Listen to Your Gut
After your doctor visit, review your notes and think about how you felt overall. Were your questions answered? If not, are you able to get clarification quickly? Did you feel at ease and able to trust the physician?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, you likely had a good office visit, and you may decide to see this doctor again. If anything feels “off” to you, it’s OK to seek a second opinion and look for another doctor.
10. Get a Second Opinion, if Needed
If you weren’t 100% happy with your visit, you may want to seek a second opinion. Re-visit your original list of doctors and choose the next one on your list. MediFind can help you find new options for primary care doctors near you.
If you are looking for a specialist or you are diagnosed with a rare, serious, or complex condition, use MediFind to search for leading doctors in their fields. MediFind compiles the latest medical data to allow health consumers to find the world’s leading doctors who are experts in specific conditions.
Use MediFind’s Second Opinion Finder to find specialists who are most likely to give you a quality second opinion. If you do not yet have a diagnosis and need some assistance to narrow down potential conditions to choose the best doctors, consult MediFind’s Symptom Checker.
10-Step Checklist: Choosing a Primary Care Physician
We covered a lot of detail in this guide, so we put together this summary checklist to simplify the process.
1. Choose a primary care specialty
- General practice
- Family practice
- Alternative treatment styles
- Functional medicine
- Osteopathic medicine
- Holistic medicine
2. Compile a shortlist of doctors by searching your insurance network. Also, evaluate:
- Office hours
- Working days
- Insurance affiliation
- New patient acceptance
- Available appointments
3. Ask for recommendations and add reliable doctors to your shortlist
4. Check hospital affiliation
- Insurance coverage
- Hospital preference
- Review hospital records
5. Consider additional factors to narrow down your list
- Individual or group practice?
- Labs and x-rays on or off-site?
- Languages spoken
- Years in practice
- Preferred gender
6. Verify the doctor’s background
- Verify board certification
- Review disciplinary records
- Verify licenses in practicing states
- Federation of State Medical Boards website
7. Prepare before your visit
- Prepare questions
- Bring a list of symptoms, medications, supplements, and past test results
8. Evaluate during your visit
- Receptive listener
- Comfortable with patient autonomy
- Empathetic and humble
9. Listen to your gut
10. Get a second opinion if needed
- Re-visit your shortlist
- Use MediFind’s Second Opinion Finder to find specialists who are experts in your condition.
- Use MediFind’s Symptom Checker to narrow down potential diagnoses to discuss with your doctor.
Finding a primary care physician is a choice many health consumers will have to face at some point in their lives. This doctor will be your trusted health advisor and likely treat you for many years to come. Take the process slow and see more than one doctor if you feel it is necessary. Look for a doctor you can trust who will become a compassionate advocate for you and your family’s health.