Vital Signs: Why A Good Doctor May Be Hard To Find These Days
The Obama administration says about eight million people have signed up for the Affordable Care Act through online exchanges – not counting those who bought plans “off-exchange” through insurance carriers. That’s a lot of people who will need to choose a primary care physician.
It’s not an easy task. There’s a shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S.
Dr. Jill Waggoner, a family practice physician with Methodist Charlton Medical Center, says there are fewer primary care physicians in the pipeline (“Marcus Welby is no longer with us.”), but they’re not impossible to find. In this edition of Vital Signs, Waggoner offers some advice and some things to keep in mind in searching for a doctor.
The National Institutes Of Health says having a primary care provider can give you a trusting, ongoing relationship with one medical professional over time. You can choose from several different types of PCPs:
Family practitioners – doctors who have completed a family practice residency and are board certified, or board eligible, for this specialty. The scope of their practice includes children and adults of all ages and may include obstetrics and minor surgery.
Pediatricians — doctors who have completed a pediatric residency and are board certified, or board eligible, in this specialty. The scope of their practice includes the care of newborns, infants, children, and adolescents.
Internists — doctors who have completed a residency in internal medicine and are board certified, or board eligible, in this specialty. The scope of their practice includes the care of adults of all ages for many different medical problems.
Obstetricians/gynecologists — doctors who have completed a residency and are board certified, or board eligible, in this specialty. They often serve as a PCP for women, particularly those of childbearing age.
Nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA) — practitioners who go through a different training and certification process than doctors. They may be your key contact in some practices.
Many insurance plans limit the providers you can choose from, or provide financial incentives for you to select from a specific list of providers. Make sure you know what your insurance covers before starting to narrow down your options.
When choosing a PCP, also consider the following:
- Is the office staff friendly and helpful? Is the office good about returning calls?
- Are the office hours convenient to your schedule?
- How easy is it to reach the provider? Does the provider use email?
- Do you prefer a provider whose communication style is friendly and warm, or more formal?
- Do you prefer a provider focused on disease treatment, or wellness and prevention?
- Does the provider have a conservative or aggressive approach to treatment?
- Does the provider order a lot of tests?
- Does the provider refer to other specialists frequently or infrequently?
- What do colleagues and patients say about the provider?
- Does the provider invite you to be involved in your care? Does the provider view your patient-doctor relationship as a true partnership?
You can get referrals from:
- Friends, neighbors, or relatives
- State-level medical associations, nursing associations, and associations for physician assistants
- Your dentist, pharmacist, optometrist, previous provider, or other health professional
- Advocacy groups — especially to help you find the best provider for a specific chronic condition or disability
- Many health plans, such as HMOs or PPOs, have websites, directories, or customer service staff who can help you select a PCP who is right for you