Choosing a Primary Care Provider

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Choosing a primary care provider (PCP) is a very important decision.  Your PCP is your main healthcare provider.  They provide preventive care services as well as treat common acute and chronic medical conditions.  They will also be responsible for determining when you may need to be seen by a specialist and making those referrals.  Ideally, you will have a primary care physician with whom you can build a long term relationship.  So, it is important to choose a physician that you trust and in whom you have confidence.  This relationship will allow them to become familiar with your medical background and understand what is important to you.  Choosing a physician can be an overwhelming process if you don’t know where to start but is an essential part of your healthcare.  Here are a few things to consider when choosing a primary care provider:

  1. Choose the type of PCP that will best meet your health needs
    • Family Practice—These physicians are able to treat patients of all ages and specialize in prevention, diagnosis and management of acute and chronic conditions.  If you have children and you would like for everyone to be seen in the same clinic, a Family Practice physician may be a good choice for you.
    • Internal Medicine—These physicians treat adult patients and specialize in prevention, diagnosis and management of acute and chronic conditions.
    • Geriatricians— These physicians care for older adults with complex medical needs related to aging.
  2.  Check with your insurance: Most health plans have negotiated special rates with certain doctors and hospitals so that you will pay less when visiting these doctors.  Knowing which physicians are “in-network” will help you avoid higher “out-of-network” charges.
  3. Get recommendations: Ask friends and family for recommendations.  Many people feel more comfortable seeing a physician that is recommended by someone they know.  However, it is vital to find out why they are recommending a certain physician to be sure their preferences are the same as yours.
  4. Consider hospital care: If you get sick and need hospitalization, it is important to know at which hospital the physician has privileges or an affiliation.  Who will take care of you in the hospital?  Many primary care physicians transition care to hospitalists, which are physicians that specialize in inpatient care, for the care of their patients when they are hospitalized.  If it is very important that your PCP care for you in the hospital, you will want to know this on the front end.  It is also good to know what specialty services and testing the hospital offers.
  5. Find out about office policies: You’ll want to consider office hours.  Do you need early, late or weekend availability?  Ask how far in advance you will need to schedule routine visits.  How about same day scheduling or urgent care needs?  If your PCP is unavailable, who will see you—another physician, Advance Practice Nurse or Physician Assistant?  You will want to be sure you have enough time to discuss your concerns, so find out what amount of time is allotted for each visit.  How many patients does the physician see in a day?  Twenty-five to thirty patients a day is about right.  Many more than that and he/she may be rushed and unable to address all your concerns.  What is the typical wait time?  If the physician is routinely 1-2 hours behind schedule, you’ll want to plan accordingly.   Calling the office to ask these questions will also allow you to determine if the office staff is friendly and helpful and good about returning calls.
  6. Determine compatibility: Visit potential primary care physicians.  Nothing will give you an idea of compatibility like a face-to-face meeting.  You need to be sure you feel comfortable with the physician and staff.  As mentioned above, this relationship will hopefully be a long one so you will need to feel comfortable having honest and open conversations.  You should note if the physician listens to you without interruption, encourages questions and answers your questions.  Does he/she explain your diagnoses and treatments so that you understand them?  Many believe that having a strong relationship with your PCP not only improves satisfaction with your care but also results in better health.  This makes sense because having good communication will ensure you get the tests and treatments you need.  You should also feel comfortable asking about their education and training as well as board certification and recent CME.   Ensuring that a physician has maintained board certification and routinely completes CME will allow you to feel confident that they are knowledgeable of the most recent evidence based medicine and guidelines.

Choosing a PCP is an important step in taking charge of your healthcare.  Preferably, you should choose your PCP before you are sick so that you will have adequate time to do the above research.  There are many good physicians to choose from but not every physician will be a match for you.  If you feel you may not have made the correct choice, remember, relationships are built over time.  It may take a few visits to get to know one another.  If, after a few visits, you still feel you and your PCP are not a good fit, you should choose a different PCP.  After all, choosing a capable primary care physician and developing a relationship built on trust and honest communication is your first line of defense to getting well and staying well.

Kasey Holder is Vice President of Medical Affiars at St. Bernards Medical Center. Dr. Holder was previously the Director of Hospitalist Program before assuming her new role in 2015. She still serves as a Hospitalist in the hospital. Dr. Holder completed her medical degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she then went on to complete her Family Medicine Residency at AHEC-Northeast here in Jonesboro.

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