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How To Choose A Primary Care Doctor

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Your primary care doctor (also known as a "primary care physician" ,"PCP" or "family doct or") is a critical member of your health care team -- no matter how many other doctors you see.

What a Primary Care Physician Does: These days, a primary care doctor has two basic functions:

  • A medical and health repair person who helps to eliminate ailments or manage ailments that cannot be eliminated. 
  • A medical coach to help prevent or head off medical problems before they happen.

In taking care of these functions, a PCP:

  • Takes care of the whole you,not just a particular ailment.
  • Gets to know you, your life, your genetic predispositions and your values.
  • Recommends specialists for medical matters beyond his/her expertise.
  • Oversees and coordinates your care.
  • Helps you sort through medical information.
  • Helps you make a decision about treatment if your best course of action isn't clear.
  • Recommends changes in your lifestyle to help prevent future medical problems. He or she also helps motivate you and encourages you.

How To Choose A PCP: A primary care doctor is too important to your health and overall well being to choose one just because a family member or friend likes him or her, or who has an office close to your work, or by looking in the yellow pages. Think about the time you spend picking out a car: the research you do, the people you talk to, and the thought you give it. Isn't your health more important? Your life?

Whoever your doctor is, the more you participate in your health care, the better the outcome is likely to be. Indeed, a partnership with your physician provides the best  long term results.

Consider the following steps, each of which are described in other sections of this article:

Step 1. Decide what kind of doctor you need as your primary doctor. For example, an internist (a doctor who specializes in family medicine) or, if you are a woman, an obgyn.
Step 2. Decide what to look for in a doctor. At the least, you need a doctor who can work with the variety of specialists you are likely to work with over time.
Step 3. Locate a doctor who fits your criteria, including insurance and/or financial criteria.
Step 4. Check the doctor's quality. It's easy to do.
Step 5. Spend a few minutes with the staff.
Step 6. Interview the doctor.
Step 7. Review all you've learned and make a decision.

Don't expect to have a full blown relationship with a doctor after one visit. It will take more than one visit for you and your doctor to really get to know each other and begin to develop a working relationship.

If you have a spouse or significant other, consider both of you seeing the same doctor, or at least doctors in the same group of doctors. It can help the doctor get to know you better.

Learn how to maximize your time with your doctor, when and how to ask for second opinions, when to end the relationship if necessary, and how to do it. (See "To Learn More.")

If you cannot locate or afford a primary care doctor, consider using a nurse practitioner, or, if you can find one, the new category of nurses known as "Doctor of Nursing Practice."

  • A Nurse Practitioner genearlly has an MS degree, a Registered Nurse license and a Nurse Practitioner license. He or she has authority to write prescriptions, and to receive Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement.
  • A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a new category of nurses. A DNP has a doctoral degree. DNPs have authority to write prescrptions and to obtain reimbursement from Medicare/Medicaid. There is a growing recognition for payment by commercial health insurers. Hospital medical boards are granting admitting privileges.

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