If your health insurance is through your employer, there's a better-than-average chance it's also with an HMO or PPO, which means that at some point you'll be selecting a primary care physician. Many people simply look at the preferred provider directory and pick the doctor closest to them. Some go a step further and make sure the doctor they pick is of their preferred gender. Many women, for example, prefer to have a female physician. While picking the closest practice isn't always a bad idea, it's kind of scary to think that many of us put more thought into selecting a mechanic or a hair dresser than we do in choosing the person who will be our partner in health care.
What should you consider when choosing a primary care physician (PCP), then? Here are some points to ponder:
- What kind of doctor do you want? PCPs come in three basic flavors: family practice, general practice, and internal medicine physicians.
- Family practice physicians are certified or are board-eligible in the Family Practice specialty, and have completed specific training in Family Medicine. They generally treat people of all ages, from newborn babies to the very old, and they treat a broad variety of conditions including some things that are often referred to specialists, like OB/GYN care and sports medicine.
- General practice doctors are often "family practice" doctors who got their training before family practice was an actual specialty, but may also include osteopaths, and are not always board-certified.
- Internal medicine specialists are certified or board-eligible in the Internal Medicine specialty, and have completed specific training in that area. Usually, their only patients are adults, and while they do treat a broad variety of conditions, most serious ones (including sports injuries and neurological issues) are referred to specialists.
- What special requirements do you have? Do you prefer a male or female doctor? Is it better if your doctor's office is closer to work, or closer to home? Do you need to find a doctor who has weekend and evening appointments? Do you have a medical condition that requires a specialist? All of these questions are extremely important when it comes to choosing your PCP.
- Narrow your choices. Once you've figured out a couple of possibilities, do some research.
- Is the doctor you want part of your insurance company's preferred network? If not, you can still use them, but unless they join your HMO or PPO, it will cost you more.
- Is the doctor you want accepting new patients? Some popular physicians or small practices cap their patient lists.
- Does anyone you know use the same doctor, and if so, would they recommend him or her?
- Can your previous physician offer any insight?
- Interview the PCP you've picked. You've found the doctor you think will be right for you, but before you sign on to their practice, you should visit their office, and even interview the doctor. (Make an appointment to do this, and tell the receptionist what you're doing. They'll be confused, but will usually work with you.). When you make that office visit, pay attention to the following:
- Staff: Are they attentive and organized? Are they polite on the phone, and do they answer fairly quickly?
- Patient care: How far in advance do you need to book an appointment? What are the doctor's regular office hours, and who provides care if your doctor is away? How long to patients typically sit in the waiting room before a scheduled appointment. Are walk-ins taken in case of an emergency?
- Ease of access: Does your doctor return phone calls him- or herself, or only the receptionist or nurse. Can you communicate by email? Is there an online system for requesting appointments?
If, after you've considered all these points, and found that the doctor has a communication style that meshes with your own, you still like the PCP you've chosen, that's great! If not, or if your needs change, don't feel bad. This is a professional relationship, and you are paying for your health care (even if it's just a co-pay). That means the doctor you see is YOUR choice. Most HMOs and PPOs let you change doctors at least once per plan year, but some will require an explanation if there are multiple changes.