As a consumer, some choices affect your life long term. Choosing a primary care physician is one of those choices; yet, many of us spend much more time researching and selecting a car to drive than we do choosing who will steer our health care.
Any time is a great time to take back control of your health care and make sure you have a provider who is best for you and your family. With that objective in mind, here are few things to consider when selecting a primary care physician.
How engaged are they?
Like every patient, you have specific needs. To find out if a physician can meet those needs, it’s worth setting up an initial appointment — a test drive, of sorts.
During that first visit, examine how the doctor interacts with you. Take note of how much time they allow for the appointment. They should be engaged, attentive and answer questions to your satisfaction.
“People have this sense that they are there to please their doctor,” says Dr. Harry Kaplan, who has been practicing as an internist in Maryland for 25 years. “The doctor is there to meet your needs. If the doctor is not meeting your needs, you should change (your doctor). Many people feel that the doctor is doing them a favor by seeing them; it shouldn’t be that way.”
How accessible are they?
How long does it take to schedule an appointment? Is there a doctor or nurse practitioner on call for emergencies after office hours? These questions matter. Doctors, after all, are only effective if they’re available to you.
“It’s very important to have easy access to your provider through a patient portal, — which is the way you communicate electronically — and on-call coverage,” says Dr. Peter Beilenson, CEO of Maryland-based Evergreen Health Care, which operates four primary care offices in the Baltimore area.
“Our primary care offices have 24-hour (phone) coverage in off hours by a doctor or nurse practitioner — someone who can prescribe something for you and do the appropriate triage,” Beilenson says.
Are you comfortable at their office?
Some offices have moved away from the sterile, beige-walls of yesteryear in favor of a friendly and modern coffeeshop-type aesthetic. But a welcoming atmosphere means more than just appearance.
Treating a patient is a group effort. Your interactions and comfort with each staff member at a doctor’s office matters.
“We are very team-oriented,” Beilenson says. Doctors, licensed clinical social workers, nurse practitioners and so on — they all work together as a team, he explains.
How does their office function?
Medicine is moving to a more patient-centered approach. In this model, a patient spends less time waiting and more time in front of medical professionals. If you’re seeing a specialist, a primary care physician should be able to recommend one that is right for you — and they may even have one on-site.
“With our providers, if you see three of them — a medical assistant, a doctor and a licensed clinical social worker — during your visit, they all come to your exam room,” Beilenson explains, as an example. That means you aren’t shuffled from place to place: Your care is brought to you, he adds.
Is the doctor friend- or family-recommended?
When looking for a new primary care physician, internet reviews are plentiful but too impersonal to rely on exclusively. It makes sense to ask within your social and family circles.
In the end, you’re looking for a caretaker, a coach and an advocate.
“The ability of individuals to manage their own care has become more and more difficult,” Kaplan says. The system is generally unaccommodating to patients, he warns, so you need an advocate — especially if you develop an illness and have to go to the hospital.
“Think about it,” Kaplan says. “If you have a legal problem, you get a lawyer to help manage your problems. You would never go into court without a lawyer. I think the same thing is so with medicine.” You need a primary care physician who will be your lifelong advocate, he adds.
—Brendan Murphy for Evergreen Health