If you don’t already have a family doctor, often called a primary care physician (PCP), lining one up should probably be a priority. These physicians are your first line of defense when it comes to your health, and are also often the “home base” from which specialist visits are arranged. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), “the evidence shows that access to primary care helps people live longer, healthier lives.” These doctors have the most detailed knowledge about your health and history outside of yourself—so choosing the right one, and not just the first one, is extremely important.
Search your health plan network. If you have health insurance, you want to make sure the physicians you’re considering are included in your plan’s network. If they’re not, you could be faced with some very high out-of-pocket expenses. There’s no point in learning about a great doctor you may not be able to afford to see because of insurance constraints.
Get referrals. It never hurts to ask friends, neighbors, relatives, and work associates if they can recommend one. Few things are more reliable than the experiences of people just like you. While you’re at it, check online reviews and evaluate them critically. A negative review does not necessarily mean a patient was treated inappropriately.
Check their location. At first glance, it might not seem like a big deal to travel 45 minutes or so to see a physician, but if you’re really sick, you don’t want to travel a long distance. Consider how close it is to your workplace if you’re the kind of person who tries to knock out routine appointments on your lunch break, or if you or a loved one requires regular, frequent visits because of a particular condition.
Credentials are important, too. Do you want to see someone licensed to practice medicine, or do you want a board-certified family practice physician? Many think that being licensed and board-certified are the same thing, but they’re not. A physician who completes medical school and a one-year internship is eligible to secure a state license to practice medicine after passing a licensing exam. In contrast, becoming a board-certified family physician requires completing a three-year family residency program after graduation from medical school. These programs involve intensive training in each of the specialty areas, from pediatrics to geriatrics, giving doctors the chance to learn about the different illnesses their patients may encounter over their lives.
Schedule an appointment. Once you’ve narrowed your options, schedule an initial appointment with the physician at the top of the list. During the appointment, did you feel comfortable and unrushed, did the doctor listen to you and ask questions, did they answer your questions, and did they address your medical problems? Did they seem like someone you’d be comfortable entrusting with your care for many years into the future? Do you think they’d be good with your significant other or your kids?
If the answers to these questions are yes, you’ve probably found the right primary care physician to treat you and your family.