Finding a good primary care doctor can feel a little bit like dating. It’s awkward. Your expectations are high. You know it’s rough out there, but you’re still secretly hoping to find the one.
So where do you begin? Just like dating, finding a doctor you click with is all about trusting your intuition.
“What you get in a snapshot isn’t that far from the truth,” says Dr. Kimberly Manning, a primary care doctor and associate professor at Emory University. “In terms of interactions, in how someone talks to you — I think those things can be really powerful markers to help you decide if this is a good fit.”
It’s worth it to get this relationship right. Your primary care doctor is your first point of contact in the health care system, someone who knows the full you — not just your kidneys or your heart. They’re there to help prevent you from getting sick, and guide you through a complicated network of hospitals and specialists if you do become ill.
And research shows that having a primary care doctor you feel comfortable with can be critical to your well-being. A 2005 paper by Johns Hopkins pediatrician Barbara Starfield found that robust relationships with primary care providers help prevent illness and death, and can help reduce racial and socioeconomic health disparities.
A good place to start your search for a primary care provider is the directory of in-network doctors that your health insurance provides. By the way, your primary care provider doesn’t have to be a doctor — you can also work with a nurse practitioner or physician assistant — both of these types of clinicians are fully qualified to handle your care.
You can call around to different offices and make preliminary appointments with different providers, so you can get a sense of which ones you like. This kind of doctor shopping is common when expectant parents interview different pediatricians — totally OK for grownups, too!
If you don’t have insurance, don’t give up. Many community health centers see uninsured patients for free or for a sliding-scale fee. To find one, search online for “federally qualified health centers” near you.
Know your needs: Convenience vs. complexity
As you start to narrow your search, Manning recommends asking yourself some questions about what kind of patient you are.
If you’re young and pretty healthy, it’s totally fine to prioritize convenience. Look for a doctor who is close to your home or work. Many offices offer evening or weekend hours, and some will do virtual visits for simple problems like a urinary tract infection or a cold. You can and should call and ask about amenities like these when you make your first appointment.
But for those of you who have some medical problems or have been hospitalized in the last year, it’s important that you see a primary care doctor who shares electronic medical records with any specialists you see. This allows your doctor or nurse to communicate with your specialists about your treatment plan — which can be crucial for your health.
“As a practicing physician, I know how much better it is for us to take care of patients when we can all see the electronic medical record of what’s been going on,” Manning says. “It just allows for continuity.”
All this means you should probably look for a doctor who works for the same hospital system or physician’s group as a variety of specialists and hospitals. You can find this out on your doctor’s website or by asking when you call the office. Be aware, this isn’t the same thing as checking if they’re in your insurance network.
Look for a personal connection
The most important factor is that you feel comfortable with your provider. Be on the lookout for someone who makes eye contact and who listens without interrupting.
It’s about more than just pleasantries. Going to a doctor or nurse who is empathetic can actually help you stay on top of taking your medications and getting the preventative tests you need.
“Find somebody who is curious, who asks questions that let you know that you’re being heard,” says Sana Goldberg, a nurse and the author of How To Be A Patient.
If you’re a person of color, there’s research that shows that having a minority physician may be good for your health. One recent study showed that when black patients have black doctors, for example, they’re more likely to get recommended preventive services.
And if English isn’t your first language, it may be a good idea to call different doctors and see if you can find one who speaks your native language.
So what if you have a doctor but things haven’t been going so well? How do you tell your doctor, “I think we need to talk?”
First of all, you shouldn’t hesitate to give your provider feedback. We promise: Your doctor really does want to hear from you about what she could be doing better.
Start with personal language about how your doctor makes you feel, and try to keep your feedback specific. You can try something like: “It makes me feel dismissed when you look at the computer more than me.” Or, “I am having a hard time understanding the plan. Can you use less medical terminology?”
And if you’ve given all this a shot, and still feel you aren’t connecting with your doctor? It may be time to break up, Goldberg says.
“If you feel like you’ve made an effort and you’re not heard, you’re not listened to, it’s always O.K. to find somebody else,” she says.
When you meet new potential doctors, feel free to tell them what wasn’t working with your old one — it will help make sure you start off on the right foot.
It may be frustrating to start your search again, but it’s worth it to find a doctor who really gets you. Your health depends on it.
Mara Gordon is a physician and the 2018-2019 Health and Media Fellow at NPR and Georgetown University. In August, she joins the faculty at Cooper Medical School in Camden, NJ.