A primary care physician (also called a primary care provider or PCP for short) might just be the most important medical figure in your life. Unfortunately, no one ever explains what to look for when selecting a PCP so that you end up with someone you trust and can form a relationship with. Your PCP is your care coordinator and your personal liaison to the rest of the medical community. He or she acts as your advocate in all circumstances and works to ensure that you get the best quality health care possible. In many ways, your primary care provider is your health care guide at the times when you are your most vulnerable. You need someone you can trust, so consider the following points when looking for a PCP.
Consider the Different Types of Primary Care Providers
Primary care isn’t a single medical specialty, it is an umbrella term that covers several different specialties. PCPs can be any one of the following.
- Pediatricians work with children from birth until they reach 18 or 21 years of age. They are specialists in the disorders that affect children as well as in preventative health practices to ensure proper growth, development, and well being in children.
- Family medicine doctors are generalists that are trained to treat your entire family. They are even trained to deliver babies in some cases and can perform certain minor surgeries.
- Internal medicine doctors deal exclusively with adults and often go on to get subspecialty training. None of them treat children, but many will treat older adults.
- Obstetricians and gynecologists specialize in the needs of women. Obstetricians focus specifically on the needs of women around the time of pregnancy.
- Geriatricians focus on the care of older adults, usually age 60 and older (https://www.scripps.org/news_items/4213-so-you-need-a-new-primary-care-doctor).
Understand Your PCP’s Role
Your PCP is your main care provider for non-emergency situations. If you have a new medical problem that is not an emergency, your PCP will usually be the first person you see. Your PCP’s responsibilities include
- Providing care to help prevent diseases and maintain your health,
- Identifying and treating common medical problems,
- Referring you to medical and surgical specialists when appropriate, and
- Coordinating your care when you need to see more than one health provider (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001939.htm).
Personal Preferences to Consider
When you are searching for a primary care provider, consider how you like to be treated when you are concerned about your health.
- Do you want a doctor who runs a lot of tests or takes a wait-and-see approach?
- Do you want someone who is aggressive with treatment or conservative?
- Do you want formal communication or more relaxed interactions?
- Do you prefer cutting edge technology or tried-and-true approaches?
- Are you interested in complementary and alternative medical practices or strictly traditional approaches?
- Do you want a physician who takes charge and tells you what to do or one who invites you to participate in your care?
- Does your insurance limit the providers you can choose from?
If possible, find out what colleagues have to say about your PCP choices. Do they respect your PCP or do they struggle to find something nice to say? Consider what patients have to say as well. Do they love or loathe the providers on your short list?
Finally, don’t forget to ask for referrals from friends, neighbors, relatives, other health providers, advocacy groups, or even from your health insurer. You can sometimes ask to interview a potential provider or participate in open-house events hosted by certain providers. Finally, don’t forget that you can change your PCP if you are not happy. You do not have to stay with a provider if you find out your personalities don’t mesh, your needs have changed, or things just aren’t right.