5 Steps to Choosing a Primary Care Doctor

by Susan Evans

Choosing a new doctor? Make sure you select one who will meet your needs, take the time to talk with you at every visit, and fully answer your questions as well as holds the same beliefs that you do regarding your medications and healthcare philosophy.

Here are five steps to finding the right doctor for you.

WHN TIP – New to the Area? Ask your current doctor or insurance provider for recommendations in that area. Remember to transfer your medical records once you have chosen a new doctor.

Decide on the Type You Need

  • General practitioners provide health care for a wide range of medical problems. They do not focus on any one area of medicine.
  • Family practitioners are similar to general practitioners, with extra training to focus on health care for all family members, regardless of age.
  • Internists are doctors for adults. Some internists take additional training to become specialists. For example, cardiologists are internists who specialize in diseases of the heart.
  • Geriatricians specialize in the care of older adults. A geriatrician is trained in family practice or internal medicine but has additional training in caring for older people.

WHN TIP – Asking for Recommendations: You can get recommendations from family, friends, neighbors and co-workers as well as other health professionals or your hospital’s doctor referral service. The HealthGrades website can help you find a physician by condition, procedure or specialty in your area.

Determine Your Practice Requirements

What matters to you:

  • Practice hours? For example, do you need evening or weekend appointments?
  • Location? Does the practice need to be accessible by public transport? Close to work and/or home?
  • Costs and coverage? Is the practice on your plan?
  • Hospital privileges: Do the physicians in the practice have privileges at your preferred hospital?
  • Hospital visits: Do the physicians in the practice attend you if you’re admitted to the hospital or let the hospitalist on staff handle your case?

WHN TIP – Health Care Costs: If you are in a managed care plan, check the plan’s list of doctors first. You can also call your insurance company’s helpline to locate a doctor in your network. Not insured? There are low-cost or free clinics available.

Do A “Telephone Interview”

Contact the top doctors on your list and ask the practice or office manager the following questions to help you narrow down your choices. In some cases, you can find the information on the practice website but always double-check for accuracy.

  1. Is the doctor accepting new patients? How soon are appointments available?
  2. May I bring a family member to my appointment?
  3. What happens if I cancel an appointment? Will I still have to pay?
  4. Does the doctor belong to my HMO or other managed care plan?
  5. Does the doctor accept my insurance plan or Medicare/Medicaid?
  6. What are the fees for the various services?
  7. Where is the practice located?  Is it accessible by public transportation?
  8. Is the doctor’s office open at times that are convenient for me?
  9. On what days, dates and/or holidays is the center closed?
  10. How long has the doctor been in that location?
  11. What kind of patients does the doctor usually see?
  12. Does the doctor have specialized training in, or is familiar with, ________ (my condition)?
  13. Does the doctor have any practice limitations? For example, does a pediatrician accept only infants or only adolescents? Does the doctor practice only gynecology, not obstetrics?
  14. Does the doctor see patients at home? In nursing homes? In hospice?
  15. Do the doctor and staff members speak the language that I am most comfortable speaking?
  16. Are appointments on-time? What is the average waiting time?
  17. Does the doctor give advice over the phone or via e-mail for common medical problems?
  18. During what hours and under what circumstances can I speak directly with the doctor?
  19. If I call with a question about my care, how soon will the doctor or nurse return my call?
  20. If it’s after-hours, whom should I contact or where should I go for urgent care?
  21. If my physician is out of town, who fills in and where is that doctor’s office located? If the doctor works in a group, will one doctor be my primary or do they share the patient load?
  22. What hospital(s) is the doctor’s practice affiliated with? (No affiliation? Ask why not.)
  23. Does the doctor’s practice work closely with a specific pharmacy?
  24. Does the doctor or nurse call the pharmacy or am I responsible for having prescriptions filled?
  25. Where are routine x-rays and laboratory studies performed — in the office or at an outside laboratory?
  26. Does the office send out reminder e-mails, phone calls or postcards for regular check-ups?

Meet With the Doctor

Once you have narrowed your choices, make an appointment with one or more of the doctors to gain more information as well as a sense of the personalities of the doctor and the practice staff. The following questions can provide some additional insights?

WHN TIP – Bring a Companion: Consider bringing someone with to help ask questions and understand the information.

  • What is your philosophy about… (disease, complementary treatments, newest drugs, whatever you have learned about)?

WHN Reader TIP – What’s Your Philosophy? “Choose a doctor(s) who have the same philosophy as you. If you believe non-invasive, natural treatments should be used before more invasive ones, find a physician who agrees. If you believe that vaccinations are dangerous, find a pediatrician (or holistic health practitioner like an ND or chiropractor) who agrees. If you want to be on the cutting edge and participate in clinical trials, then find a physician with good ties to said trials so you can up your chance of participation. Fighting with doctors whose philosophy differs from yours is counterproductive as well. It is expensive to ‘test drive’ physicians and holistic practitioners, but it helps a lot when you really are sick to be in sync before you start.” Nan Andrews Amish, CA

  • Are you board certified?
  • Can I see a copy of your license or other certification?

WHN TIP – Licenses and Board Certifications: Find out whether they are licensed in your state and board-certified in the appropriate specialty. Click here for a list of the state medical boards and their websites.

  • What medical school and residency programs did you attend?
  • How many years of experience do you have?
  • Do you have specialized training in _________ (Name the area of your concern: i.e. diabetes, heart disease, etc.)?
  • What’s the best way for me to prepare for an office visit with you? For example, should I bring my questions in writing?
  • Would you provide your instructions in writing for me?

WHN TIP – Be Specific About Your Own Health Needs: Ask questions regarding your health matters, treatments or other issues.

Evaluate the Answers

Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate your doctor and your appointment experience.

  1. Was the staff friendly and helpful?
  2. Did the doctor take notes and ask about my symptoms, family and personal history and current medications?
  3. Did the doctor really listen to my questions and answer them in a way that I understand?
  4. Was the doctor respectful and considerate?
  5. Did the doctor ask me questions?
  6. Did the doctor address the health problem I came with?
  7. Did the doctor ask me my preferences about different kinds of treatments and prescriptions?
  8. Did the doctor seem rushed or was the doctor attentive and willing to spend time with me?
  9. Would I prefer this doctor to be the primary care doctor for my entire family or should I select different doctors for each family member?
  10. Do I feel comfortable with my decision?

WHN TIP – Follow Up if Needed: Forget to ask something or need clarification? Contact your doctor’s office and get your question answered. This will also show how responsive they are to patient concerns.

Trust your own reactions when deciding whether this doctor is the right one for you. But you also may want to give the relationship some time to develop. It takes more than one visit for you and your doctor to get to know each other.

After you’ve decided on a doctor, remember to contact your previous doctor’s office and ask for your records to be transferred. You may have to sign paperwork and wait a few weeks before the records arrive at the new practice.


The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. These tips are from doctors, nurses and people who have shared their real-life advice; always check with a doctor or other appropriate medical professional you trust before making any healthcare changes.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

Related Posts