How to choose a primary care doctor

Navigating Healthcare

by Gladys Weng, DO

Jun 25, 2024

Your primary care doctor is your home base for your health. From getting your flu shot and treating common illnesses to managing conditions like diabetes, a primary care doctor is there for your ongoing healthcare needs.

Many of us know the importance of primary care doctors or primary care physicians (PCPs), but how do you start the relationship and build a successful connection with your doctor, someone who will be there for you throughout many stages of life?

Let’s explore why you need a primary care doctor, how to choose one and how to make sure you’re happy with your provider.

What is a primary care doctor and why is it important to have one?

Primary care doctors act as your guide and counselor for preventive care issues and a resource for general health, as well as providing and managing acute (sudden) and chronic (long-term) healthcare issues.

Your primary care doctor will act as your partner in your health. They are a vital part of your health journey to help guide you as you age and establish a "healthcare home" for you. These types of doctors can be a powerful asset and resource, as we have access to information and teaching from our years of experience and training.

General practice doctors, internal medicine and pediatricians: What’s the difference?

Primary care is a general healthcare term for a type of doctor, but there are key differences to understand within this branch of medicine.

  • General practice doctors, or family practice doctors, see all people throughout their entire lives and provide the bulk of basic healthcare needs for all individuals. They may or may not have completed further training beyond an internship, known as a residency, to achieve their license. They are the most common type of primary care doctors.
  • Pediatricians care for children from birth to age 18 and will have completed a residency specific to this. They shepherd children for all their healthcare needs, both preventive and acute.
  • Internal medicine or internists are primary care doctors specialized in managing chronic and complex medical conditions. We often help to direct who and when someone needs to see a specialist.

As an adult, do I need a family practice doctor or an internal medicine doctor?

Although there is a significant amount of overlap between family practice and internal medicine providers (and they both fall under the umbrella of primary care doctors), their areas of expertise differ.

If you are young, healthy and have no longstanding health issues, such as diabetes or arthritis, you will be best served by a family practice doctor.

As an internist, I feel we are often the "detectives" of the medical community, as internal medicine doctors are trained extensively in making complex diagnoses.

It is common for us to take care of individuals who have lots of complex medical issues, requiring many medications and seeing several specialists, as we can help to coordinate and manage all of those details for our patients. An internist may have additional interest and depth of training in other areas such as:

  • Geriatrics, the health of older people
  • Endocrinology, relating to hormones and diabetes
  • Cardiology, a focus on heart health
  • Pulmonology, a specialty of lung conditions
  • Rheumatology, relating to inflammatory conditions or infection

How to find a primary care doctor

Finding a primary care doctor near you is vital for managing your health. Recommendations from family, friends or other healthcare professionals can be valuable when choosing a primary care doctor— as long as their life experience is like yours and you have similar needs. These referrals are a great place to start.

5 things to look for in a primary care doctor

  1. It’s crucial that you have a good connection with the provider. Much of what we do in primary care involves a lot of communication. If you are not able to establish that connection with a provider, it can be difficult to move forward in the relationship.
  2. Make sure they are accessible to you in the way you need them. This can be virtual care, telehealth or other communications, as well as a classic in-person office visit.
  3. If you have a specific condition or need, make sure it is one that the provider is comfortable managing well. If it is not, then it is best to select another physician.
  4. Look at the proximity to you. It’s important that the primary care doctor is geographically close to you. If you live too far away when there is an emergency, it could become a significant barrier to your care.
  5. With insurance, look at what primary care physicians are “in network.” We may not want to think about finances when we are attending to our healthcare needs, but they are a very important part of making your choices. Your provider should also be comfortable with discussing costs with you and be able to direct you to resources to help you learn more.

What should I ask a potential primary care doctor?

Ask any new or potential primary care physicians about their practice and communication style, general thoughts about healthcare, their background and training and how they may want to manage your condition or health concern.

If you do not feel comfortable or you are not able to communicate or connect with them well, it’s a red flag for your future interactions, and you may want to find a different provider

What are some signs that I have found the right primary care doctor?

You’ve found the right provider if you can easily communicate and feel comfortable interacting with them. At the very core of a great patient-doctor relationship is a deep trust and respect between each other. And that can only come when you have a strong connection with your doctor.

Why is this so critical? Because if you are not comfortable with your doctor, you may not share a vital piece of information with them and that could potentially affect their ability to treat you.

The patient-doctor relationship is unique. In society, there are not too many situations where you meet a complete stranger and are prepared to share deeply private information in a very vulnerable way.

As providers, we treat this privilege with the respect it deserves. Select a primary care doctor who understands that. Your relationship can be just as important as your relationship with your spouse or family, so don't be afraid to be selective. 

How can I build a good relationship with my primary care doctor?

Be open-minded, receptive and honest. We are human just like you and want great relationships with our patients. It is a partnership, so we want to see people who are engaged in their care and see us as true partners in their health journey.

How important are regular checkups with my primary care doctor?

Continuity of care is extremely powerful. The longer a provider knows you and takes care of you, the more likely we can start to anticipate what happens if you become ill. I have some patients who I have known for 20 years. It can be a powerful relationship when you feel your doctor truly knows you and your health issues.

What should I do if I feel like my primary care doctor is not meeting my needs?

It is completely okay to speak with your provider and tell them they aren’t meeting your needs. Not everyone can bond with everyone else. There will be some people you just don't connect with no matter what and it has nothing to do with how good a person they are or how talented a doctor they may be.

As professionals, we should be able to handle that. Just inform them, respectfully, that this is not going to work out and let them know you will seek care elsewhere.

Don’t have a primary care physician? Start a relationship with a doctor near you today.

About the Author

Gladys Weng, DO, is an internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin Oak Hill. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Weng.

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