Healthy Tips

October 5, 2016

Taking Care of Your Health: How to Choose a Doctor

Taking Care of Your Health: How to Choose a Doctor

Learning how to choose a doctor or health care service is an important part of taking good care of your health.

Definitions of different types of doctors, and knowing what to consider when choosing a doctor, are good places to start.

Doctors—also known as primary care providers—range from generalists to specialists. Specialists focus on certain areas of the body or disease. Any category of medicine or care can have a specialist.

A primary care provider (PCP) is a health care practitioner who sees people that have common medical problems.

A PCP is your main health care provider in non-emergency situations. Your PCP's role is to:

  • Provide preventive care and teach healthy lifestyle choices
  • Identify and treat common medical conditions
  • Assess the urgency of your medical problems and direct you to the best place for that care
  • Make referrals to medical specialists when necessary

Your PCP is often involved in your care for a long time. 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.

Things to consider when choosing a PCP include the following:

  • Are the office employees friendly and helpful? Are they 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?

Ask people you trust for recommendations. In addition to friends, neighbors, and relatives you might also ask your dentist, pharmacist, or other health professionals. Other resources to help you choose a doctor include the following:

  • State-level medical associations, nursing associations, and associations for physician assistants
  • 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

Another option is to request an appointment to "interview" a potential provider. There may be no cost to do this, or you may be charged a co-payment or other small fee.

If you don't have a doctor and would like help finding one, call Healthcare Coordination to make an appointment.

For reliable information on how to take better care of your health or a loved one’s health—or, on any health related topic—contact the Health Information Center. The Health Information Center is like a public library for your health, and libraries are an especially good place to learn how to be healthy.

Staffed by medical librarians and certified health information specialists, the Health Information Center offers an extensive health library, digital and print resources, and help with research on specific health conditions—all free of charge and available to the public. Whether information is picked up, emailed, or mailed this service is free to everyone.

This healthy tip is provided by the Health Information Center at The University of Tennessee Medical Center.