Choosing a Primary Care Provider

What is a primary care provider?

A primary care provider (PCP) is the person you see for general medical care. When you need a specialist, such as a surgeon, your PCP will refer you to one. Choosing the right PCP is an important decision for you and your family. This person will:

  • Provide preventive care such as physical exams, blood tests, and vaccinations
  • Help you make healthy lifestyle choices
  • Diagnose and treat common medical problems
  • Provide support and counseling for many problems that can affect your physical and emotional health
  • Refer you to a specialist when needed

After medical school, physicians complete 3 or more years of training (called a residency) in a specialty such as family practice or internal medicine. Physicians may have either an MD or a DO degree. The main difference is that doctors of osteopathy (DO) are trained in hands-on manipulation to treat joints, muscles, and bones. Both DOs and MDs take the same exams to become licensed to practice medicine.

There are several types of primary care providers:

  • Family practice physicians provide health care for patients of all ages.
  • Internists provide health care for adults.
  • Pediatricians provide health care for children and teens.
  • Obstetricians provide health care for pregnant women.
  • Gynecologists provide health care for women.
  • Geriatricians provide health care for adults over the age of 65.
  • Nurse practitioners and physician assistants work under the supervision of doctors. They may focus on working with children, adults, older adults, or women.

How do I start my search?

If you belong to a health plan, your choice of healthcare providers may be limited to providers who are included in your plan. Check the plan’s list of primary care providers.

Ask for referrals from friends, coworkers, or pharmacists. If you are moving, ask your current provider to recommend someone in your new location. Local medical societies may give you names based on your location or the type of provider you need. Some hospitals may give you names of providers.

What should I check?

Check on the provider’s background. Board-certified means that the provider has passed a national exam, and takes continuing education to stay up to date in their specialty. You can make sure the provider’s license is in good standing by calling or checking the web site for your state’s medical licensing board.

Choose a PCP who is close to your home or work.

Call the provider’s office and ask the staff:

  • Are you taking new patients?
  • Do you take my health plan?
  • What are your office hours?
  • How long has the doctor been practicing medicine?
  • What hospital does the doctor use?
  • Is the doctor part of a group of doctors?
  • What do I do if I need a doctor after office hours?
  • Can I make an appointment to meet the doctor?

Be prepared to pay for this office visit. Take a list of any questions you have for the doctor to your meeting. For example, if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or heart problems, ask about the provider’s experience in treating those problems

After you meet the doctor, ask yourself:

  • How did the office look?
  • Was I treated politely and with respect?
  • Was it easy to talk to the doctor?
  • Were all of my questions answered?
  • Did I feel rushed?

Do not make a quick choice. Try to make the choice when you are healthy, not sick.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-04-29
Last reviewed: 2014-04-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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