Beyond our family and friends, few relationships are more important to our lives than those with our primary care physicians.
Our PCPs care for us in sickness and in health. They provide that care whether we’re rich or poor. And many of these relationships persist until they’re parted by death.
So then why does 1 in every 4 Americans lack a PCP? Although primary care plays a critical role in our well-being, PCPs have become increasingly scarce in the U.S. — particularly in rural areas of the country.
The trend is even more pronounced among younger generations of patients. Instead of opting for an ongoing relationship with a doctor who knows their health history and can help steer their care through the proper channels, many Millennials and Gen Zers choose to just head to urgent care when issues crop up.
This approach is perfectly viable, but it also causes folks to put off getting care for health concerns that don’t feel immediately pressing. And when patients defer or delay routine preventive care, it can have lasting consequences.
By establishing a relationship with a PCP and nurturing that bond over time, you can get truly comprehensive care from a partner who knows your complete health history. The trick is finding Dr. Right.
Getting to Know You
Finding a primary care physician you like is a lot like dating. While there’s nothing wrong with settling down with the first person who comes along, it’s probably a good idea to explore your options and make sure you’re pursuing a relationship that benefits both parties.
Here are 10 great questions to ask the next time you’re searching for a PCP:
- Is this doctor in my insurance network? While you’re at it, check to make sure that this doctor (or their partners) can see you at your hospital of choice.
- What happens outside of normal business hours? If you get sick or have a question after hours, know what sort of options you have for getting in touch with someone for help.
- How easy is it to make appointments? Pay attention to whether this doctor offers options to schedule appointments online — or if you're required to call and talk with someone in their office whenever you need an appointment. Look for more accessible and convenient options.
- How long does it take the doctor to get me in if I need to be seen before a routine visit? Health issues have a way of surprising all of us. The last thing you want is to be stuck waiting several weeks before you can get in for a visit with your doctor. Ask about average wait times for last-minute appointments.
- Will I always see the doctor, or will I see a nurse practitioner sometimes? Either can help you, but you’ll just want to know how your doctor approaches visits. There might be cases where you like the nurse practitioner more than the doctor!
- What board certification does this doctor have? Look for board certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties in family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, or OB-GYN.
- Does this doctor share my values on sensitive subjects like sex, pregnancy, family planning, and sexual orientation? Don't be shy to ask these questions. If your doctor feels uncomfortable answering them, that should tell you something!
- How do they handle chronic medical conditions? If you have chronic medical conditions, note whether the doctor manages these herself — or sends patients to specialists.
- Who answers the phone when I call the doctor’s office? If there’s a receptionist, pay attention to whether they are in the doctor’s actual office. Also note whether you can talk directly to the doctor's nurse or medical assistant when you call.
- What are my doctor’s hobbies or interests? This might seem trivial, but doctors actually do enjoy talking about this sort of thing — they’re also people. It will also give you some insight into how you might get along with them!
While we’re at it, here are two things that don’t matter (and which you shouldn’t bother asking):
- Where did the doctor go to medical school? To be licensed in the U.S., doctors must first attend a medical school that is certified and accredited. Board certification also requires this.
- Is this doctor a DO or an MD? In the past, this mattered more than it does now. At this point, training for DOs and MDs is incredibly similar.
There’s something truly beautiful about finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life getting to know. Whether we’re talking about a romantic partner or a medical provider, the same truth applies. Instead of hastily scribbling in “N/A” the next time paperwork asks for your primary care physician, spend some time looking for a PCP who will understand your full medical history and help you get the best care possible.