It used to be that when you were looking for a new primary care physician you could just ask friends and family for their recommendations and sign on with their top choice.
But today that tried and true method might not always pan out. Many of the physicians that come highly recommended might not be taking new patients, largely because primary care physicians are in short supply. The Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Workforce Studies estimates that five years from now, the country will be short 45,000 primary care physicians, which means it may be a little bit harder than it used to be for you to find the right doctor to meet your needs.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t find the right match,” said Deborah Blazey-Martin, MD, Chief of Internal Medicine and Adult Primary Care at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “It just means you might need to enlist some new strategies in your search.” The means to success, she says, starts with knowing the best qualities to look for in a primary care physician. Below are her tips on what to look for when making your selection.
Proximity matters. Location, location, location, isn’t just a phrase for real estate searches, it should also be a consideration in your search for a doctor. When you get a case of the sniffles it’s unlikely that you’ll want to spend an hour in the car to get to your doctor’s office. Your doctor is a person you’ll likely rely on for decades – you don’t want visits to be inconvenient.
Personality matters. The best doctor in the world might not be the right fit if you can’t connect with him or her. You need to be comfortable enough with your physician to share personal information and ask questions. “If you don’t feel comfortable telling them what is on your mind they can’t take care of you,” Blazey-Martin said. “The right relationship is an important thing,” she said.
Network. If you see a number of specialists or have a chronic disease, such as diabetes, it’s wise to try and find a primary care physician within the same organization that your other physicians belong to. This makes it easier for your physicians to collaborate on your care, sharing medical records through the same electronic system. They will also likely know each other personally, which makes it more likely that they’ll pick up the phone to ask a quick question or to collaborate with these specialists they know well if they have a concern about your health. If you can’t find a primary care physician in the same organization it’s wise to ensure that they’re able to communicate easily with your specialists.
Check credentials. “It’s a good idea to make sure that your physician is either board certified or board eligible, if they’ve just finished their education,” said Blazey-Martin. Also understand what type of educational background they have and find the one best suited to your needs. Primary care physicians typically fall into two categories: doctors of internal medicine or family practice physicians. If you’ve got a chronic disease or more complex medical needs, you might want to consider a doctor of internal medicine, because their training focuses more on managing the needs of complex adult patients. Family doctors have a more diverse training background, focusing on everything from pediatric medicine to obstetrics and gynecology. “This may make them more suited if you’re looking for someone to provide care to your whole family,” says Blazey-Martin. Also look to see your doctor is a D.O or an M.D., both go through rigorous training and are equally qualified but an M.D. might focus more on traditional medicine while a D.O. could be more willing to branch out into alternative therapies.
Understand training status. If you choose a physician at an academic medical center you should also find out if your choice is a resident in training. A resident is a physician who has completed his or her medical education, but needs to work under the supervision of an experienced physician for three years. There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing a resident physician. Because they just graduated from school they may be up on more current treatment methods and the latest trends. They also generally have longer appointments than primary care doctors who have finished their training. But because their work schedules differ from established physicians it may be more challenging to schedule an appointment and they may leave the organization in a few years, once their training is complete. “If you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a doctor, a resident might not be the right choice,” she said.
Know the practice. Another question you’ll want to ask when choosing a physician is how the practice handles situations when your doctor isn’t available. Does another doctor within the practice cover for him or her if you need to be seen when your doctor’s schedule is booked? Does the practice have other doctors, nurse practitioners or physicians assistants who can see you for same day urgent care? Do they have doctors in the practice taking calls when the office is not open? Also is the practice certified as a Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH)? PCMH practices have teams that support primary care doctors allowing for outreach in between visits to ensure that chronic diseases are managed and routine prevention and screening is up to date.
Finding the right physician for your needs may take a little digging, but the time and effort you put into the process can help ensure a strong relationship with your doctor for years to come.
Tufts Medical Center’s Primary Care offices in Boston, Framingham and Quincy all have openings for new patients. Find the right doctor for you today
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