How to Choose a Primary Care Doctor

“How do I choose a primary care doctor?” is one of the most important questions in healthcare because it’s a relationship that’s critical to your well-being.  They do more than diagnose and provide treatment, they learn who you are as a person and about your lifestyle so they can provide nuanced medical solutions to meet your health goals.

Unfortunately, our convoluted healthcare system doesn’t make it easy when it comes time to choose a primary care doctor.  Insurance companies may restrict your choices, and if you don’t have insurance, medical care can be wildly expensive. Choosing the best doctor for you has been a luxury many people have not had the privilege of having. 

Direct Primary Care offers a solution to both problems because it gives patients the freedom to choose whatever doctor is the best fit for them at a price that isn’t cost prohibitive for the insured or uninsured.

The freedom to choose a doctor while liberating, can be overwhelming for some patients because they don’t know where to start. 

Here are my top tips that will help you choose a primary care doctor: 

1. Ask a Friend or Family

Getting recommendations from someone you trust is a good way to get insights into a doctor and their clinic.  You get a feel for how the doctor treats their patients, their communication style and how they run their practice. Due to the highly individualized nature of the patient-doctor relationship, remember that what may not be a good fit for your loved one, may work for you.

2. Determine if you’ll be using cash or insurance

It doesn’t matter if you love your doctor if you can’t afford them or get a timely appointment because they have a heavy patient load.

Being able to pay cash, whether to supplement insurance coverage or because the patient is uninsured, means patients have more flexibility in choosing who their healthcare provider is.  Heads up, prices from clinic to clinic could vary wildly when paying in cash.  DPC clinics have an excellent track record of providing transparent and consistent pricing for primary care services.

If you need to use insurance to pay for your primary care visits then that’s the starting point. Get the list of doctors your policy will cover and find one at a location convenient to you. Then, filter down to what is important to you (no order):

  • Can they see all your family members to maximize convenience for your family
  • Is there anyone on the insurance list that is recommended by a trusted person
  • If a person has a complex health condition, is the doctor associated with the same system as the needed specialists to make coordinating care easier
  • Do they have slots for same day urgent appointments or are all appointments weeks out

Just because you have health insurance doesn’t mean you can’t pay cash for health services that fit your lifestyle and meet your medical needs better. For example, you could pay cash for a DPC membership that meets all your primary care needs, and then save your insurance for emergency situations. You’ll want to calculate your deductible and co-pay while considering your medical needs to see if something like a DPC membership would be beneficial to you.

3. Do the research on your primary care doctor

Check to see if your primary care doctor is board-certified.   Doctors that are board-certified have to pass rigorous exams, meet licensing requirements and stay on top of the latest medical advances to keep their certification.

Unfortunately, there’s not one place you can get a full transparent profile on your doctor or their practice before making an appointment with them.

Online reviews can be very misleading.  Often doctors that utilize evidence-based treatments (i.e. treatments backed by scientific research) and who don’t “give in” to whatever the patient wants get bad reviews, and they’re great docs! Due to HIPAA, docs can’t respond to online reviews.

Insurance reviews should also be taken with a grain of salt.  Just because a doctor is very good at checking the boxes the insurance company wants checked, it doesn’t make them a good doctor.

4. Schedule a Call or a Meet & Greet

DPC practices often encourage potential patients to meet with the doctor before becoming a patient to ensure it’s a good fit between both parties.  Almost no insurance-based practice is going to accommodate meet-and-greets.  There’s just not enough time in their schedules to do that.  You can ask or try placing a phone call to their office which could tell you a lot about what type of clinic they are. Both ways will give you a good first impression to help you make your decision.

5. Keep your needs in mind

Each patient has their own health needs, communication styles and way of living. Make sure the doctor you choose has a background that aligns with your medical needs and goals. The doctor should be able to communicate with you in a way that makes you feel comfortable engaging them in conversation, and their practice should operate in a manner that’s conducive to your lifestyle.  If work prevents you from regularly going to the doctor during the week, find a doctor that’s open on weekends.

Also, think about your language preferences. Many doctors use translation services which can range in quality level. American Sign Language translation is required by law, but it’s expensive and a larger system will be more equipped with in-person translators as opposed to the video translator. ASL translation is often cost-prohibitive for self-employed small clinic doctors.

Consider the physical facilities of your doctor’s office.  Some are more spacious and thus better equipped to handle wheelchairs or they may have bariatric capable exam tables that are able to accommodate larger patients.

6. Don’t be afraid to interview the doctor

When you talk to a doctor that you’re considering don’t be afraid to ask tough questions. You want to make sure the way they practice medicine and their philosophy on healthcare aligns with your needs.   Why did they get into healthcare? Are they bilingual? If not, how would they handle the language barrier? Where do they see their practice in five years? What are their professional goals as physicians?

Ultimately, we’re all people.  Someone could be a great doctor but if personalities don’t mesh, and you can’t really build that patient-doctor trust, the care will suffer. 

Final Thought

For many people, choosing a good primary care doctor is a hit or miss proposition.  Just know that it’s not your fault.  The system wasn’t setup to maximize patient choice, but there are still many doctors that embrace this philosophy. You can find many here.

About the Author:

Dr. Cindy  is a board-certified Family Medicine physician born and raised in Houston, TX.  Dr.  Cindy is the owner of Prickly Pear Family Medicine- A Latina owned, socially responsible medical practice. She works with underserved populations, and is currently the medical director of the emergency department at Jackson County Hospital District.  She has a passion for sharing public health information on her Facebook page “Dr. Cindy”. When not wearing a lab coat, Dr. Cindy enjoys spending time visiting national parks with her husband and daughters.  

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