How To Find A Quality Primary Care Doctor

This blog was originally published in U.S. News & World Report

If you don’t already have a primary care physician, you should consider getting one soon, as it’s good for your health. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports “the evidence shows that access to primary care helps people live longer, healthier lives,” and that studies have suggested “that as many as 127,617 deaths per year in the United States could be averted through an increase in the number of primary care physicians available.”

The concept of primary care was first introduced in a now-classic New England Journal of Medicine article titled “The Ecology of Medical Care” in 1961 as a means of improving care for patients navigating a complicated web of specialist providers. Today, the primary care physician is the doctor who will you see you for anything from a sniffle or annual physical to chronic disease care, routine preventive tests or a sudden illness or injury. Also sometimes called family doctors (they see patients of any age) or general internists (who usually only see adult patients), this doctor typically acts as your first stop for any question regarding health and wellness, and many health insurance programs require a referral from a primary care physician before you can see a specialist for a closer look at a specific health issue.

Because these doctors are often the first point of contact for patients entering the medical system, developing a good working relationship with one can be very helpful to you, the patient. It’s also helpful if the doctor is of high quality and current in his or her knowledge of trends and innovations within the medical world. But what’s the best way to find this doctor who’s going to be so important to your health and wellness going forward?

“Assuming you have insurance, the insurance company is probably a great place to start,” says Robert Cattoi, director of communications for the American Board of Family Medicine. Because of the high cost of health care these days, it’s important to find out who’s in network at the commencement of your search, before spending a lot of time learning about a great doctor you may not be able to see because of insurance constraints.

In addition to checking who’s in your network, Cattoi recommends searching the ABFM’s Doctor Finder webpage, which lists all board-certified family medicine practitioners in the United States. Cattoi says a board-certified physician has earned a higher distinction than just being licensed to practice medicine. “There are a lot of people who think licensure and being board-certified are the same thing, but they’re not.” For example, a physician who completes medical school and a one-year internship is eligible to receive a state license to practice medicine. “In order to be a board-certified family physician, you have to go through a full three-year family medicine residency program,” Cattoi explains.

There are over 450 family medicine residency programs across the United States that offer “a specific curriculum for students once they come out of medical school,” Cattoi says. This curriculum covers the spectrum of medicine including clinical and hospital practice, pediatrics and intensive training in each of the specialty practice areas. This rigorous “specialty hopping” approach offers these doctors the chance to learn about all the different illnesses patients may encounter over the course of their life, from birth to old age.

Upon completion of the program, which requires periodic exams and a rigorous exit exam, these board-certified family doctors are “able to diagnose and treat about 90 percent of what walks through their door.” Once they’ve earned the ABFM-certification, these doctors must take another exam every 10 years to stay up-to-date on treatment protocols and new medical science that could impact how they practice.

This all leads to a well-rounded physician who’s better equipped to care for the whole patient, Cattoi says. The family doctor may often spot potential problems and underlying issues that the patient may not even be aware of. “Your primary concerns may be that you have diabetes or you have high blood pressure, but you really want the physician to look at more than just your diabetes or more than just your blood pressure,” to determine whether or how underlying or associated issues in your environment are affecting your health.

Cattoi says there are currently about 9,000 board-certified family physicians in the United States, and cultivating a long-term relationship with a family doctor who understands where you live, your family environment and other factors that may impact your health is an important wellness tool you should look to deploy.

Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible doctors based on their location, certification background and whether or not they’re in your insurance network, the next step is to meet with them and get a sense of what they’re like. In doing so, Cattoi says it’s important to assess how the doctor receives you. “Does the physician listen to you? Do they understand your concerns? You may run into situations where physicians are so busy or in a corporate situation where they can’t spend much time with you. But you really want to have a personal physician who knows you, knows your family and can treat you on a personal level,” Cattoi says.

In attempting to make it easier to asses a physician’s style of treatment, some insurers are adding technological innovation to the mix of options patients have in selecting the right doctor before that first meeting. Maureen E. Sullivan, chief strategy and innovation officer for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a national federation of 36 independent, community-based and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance companies, says one example is a new tool called Doctor Match, an online quiz that both patient and doctor take. Almost like an online dating service aiming to match patient preferences with primary care physicians and OB-GYN care styles, the quiz is currently offered by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, which operates in Pittsburgh and central Pennsylvania. The questions concern things like whether the doctor likes to start with lots of talking, or goes right into the exam, and other similar intangibles that aren’t necessarily as easy to quantify as where a doctor went to school or where she did her residency.

Although this particular tool only works for in-network providers for the Highmark system, the idea is one that may expand to other networks and insurers in the future as other organizations seek to make doctor selection easier.

Other factors you may want to consider in selecting a primary care physician are cost and quality. Both are considered in whether a particular doctor earns the “Blue Distinction” rating in BCBS network doctor listings. Sullivan says the company’s online database of doctors receives more than 500,000 hits per month. “That gives you an idea of how often people are checking and trying to understand not only whether the doctor or hospital is in network but also to get more information on them.”

All of this goes back to one basic tenant of doctor selection: information is power. The more you know about a doctor, the better the chances are that you’ll find a good fit. Sullivan says that innovation is helping insurers and health care providers educate members and patients on their options, which may help patients make better choices. “The ability to give consumers more information that helps them make decisions on accessing and navigating health care is a high priority across The Blue. There’s a real commitment to trying to make [choosing a doctor] easier.”