I. What is a primary care physician?

Your primary care physician is the hub of your medical care team. They provide general care and make referrals to specialists to address specific conditions, injuries, etc. Many people are surprised to find out that primary care physicians can have different, specialized education and training. Which you choose will depend on your family and healthcare needs.

Family Practice: Family practitioners are qualified to treat patients of all different ages, from infants to the elderly. As generalists, they can handle pediatric, adult, and geriatric issues. They can also treat conditions that you might otherwise have to see a specialist for, such as some women’s health issues, sports injuries, or skin problems.

Internal Medicine: Doctors of internal medicine, also called internists, are physicians who provide care for adults. Doctors of internal medicine can diagnose, manage, and help prevent chronic illness, conditions, and diseases.

General Practice: General Practice physicians or general practitioners (GPs), treat people of all ages and genders, just as family physicians do. This category also includes osteopaths, doctors who practice alternative medicine focused on the skeletal and muscular systems.

II. What does a primary care physician do?

Every team needs a manager. You can think of your primary care physician as the leader of your medical care team. Your primary care physician maintains a relationship with you over time. They oversee your medical care through:

  • Routine annual physical exams, recording your health stats and changes over time, and performing routine screenings.
  • Treatment of illnesses and injuries. They will assess symptoms, run tests, and diagnose new conditions.
  • Referrals to specialists as needed to diagnose and treat specific medical needs and conditions outside the scope of normal practice. For example, a primary care physician may refer you to an allergist to address your persistent hay fever, or to a physical therapist to help with your lower back pain.

III. Benefits of having a primary care physician

Because of relatively easier access, it is common for people to opt for the convenience of an urgent care or walk-in private clinic when health concerns pop up. Certainly, no one wants to wait days (or weeks!) for an appointment to treat a UTI, flu, or sinus infection. But there are some real— and surprising—benefits to finding a primary care physician. Having a primary care physician can save you time, save you money, and even save your life.

Comprehensive care

A primary care physician will get to know you and your health in-depth. They’ll ask you detailed questions about your medical history and that of your family, as well as your current health, symptoms, and goals. Your primary care physician can even screen for behavioral health concerns, including anxiety and depression. In short, they will look out for your long-term physical and emotional health.


Your primary care physician should be someone you see year after year, who knows your family and personal medical history, and who understands your health goals and concerns. You’ll also be able to develop a rapport in this long-term medical relationship; a good physician should have a bedside manner that allows you to feel heard and inspires trust. Open communication does more than make you feel good. You and your primary care doctor’s questions and responses can uncover health issues that might go overlooked in a more cursory acute-care setting like a walk-in clinic. You may also be able to bring up important but sensitive medical topics with a trusted primary care physician, such as sexual wellness and substance use.

Saving time

Compared to the convenience of a walk-in clinic at a major pharmacy chain or an online session with a nurse practitioner, seeing your primary care physician in their office may not seem like a timesaver. But your primary care doctor’s knowledge of your health can actually save you time in the right situation. For instance, they may be able to authorize a prescription for you after speaking with you on the phone about your symptoms, based on their knowledge of your medical history. They may also be able to treat multiple routine health concerns in the same visit, such as diagnosing a rash, delivering a flu shot, and writing a prescription for migraine medication.

Saving money

A primary care physician can save you money in more ways than one. As noted above, a primary care physician can take care of multiple health concerns in a single visit, since they specialize in general care, and since appointments with them are typically longer than appointments at a walk-in clinic. That can mean fewer office visits, and therefore fewer copays. And your annual physical exam, including preventative care like vaccines, at the office of a primary care doctor is completely free under most health insurance plans.

Illness prevention

If you’re relying only on an urgent-care doctor to treat your acute illnesses as they pop up, you may not be addressing the bigger picture. Your annual physical exam is your primary care doctor’s chance to assess the state of your health and head off health problems. Because you and your primary care doctor will have a long-term relationship, they will know you well enough to note changes in your health over time that could be cause for concern or investigation.

IV. Steps to choosing a primary care physician

In looking for a primary care physician, you want to find someone you can see yourself sticking with for years to come, someone who is convenient, easy to work with, and who provides excellent comprehensive care. Finding that person, though, can feel overwhelming, especially when most provider directories give you little information to go on. The following steps can make researching and choosing a primary care physician easier.

1. Start with your insurance company website

Your insurance company will have a list of in-network primary care physicians on their website, usually one that’s easy to find, sort, and search. This will be your jumping-off point. Some plans, especially basic ones, offer a small network, while higher-coverage plans tend to give you a bigger range of choices.

Be absolutely certain that a primary care provider you’re considering is not only in-network for your insurance company but also in-network for your plan. Some health insurance plans only cover select providers within the larger network. Accidentally seeing an out-of-network doctor can be very expensive! Check their page for this designation and also confirm with the provider’s office before booking an appointment.-

2. Narrow by neighborhood

If you want to build a long-term relationship with a primary care doctor, and continue seeing the same person for years, you won’t want to drive an hour each way to appointments. This is doubly true if you’re not feeling well. Look for a doctor with an office located near your home or office, your child’s school, or another location that’s convenient for you. You will also want to think about distance, traffic, and parking.

Many health insurance companies allow you to see your in-network primary care provider results laid out on a map. When you call to make an appointment, be sure to ask which days your prospective primary care physician is in the office. Some primary care doctors work from different locations of different days of the week, and this is often not reflected in the address that’s listed on an insurance company’s website.

3. Choose area of specialty

As we’ve noted above, there are different kinds of doctors who can serve as your primary care physician. Consider which of these types of primary care doctor makes the most sense for you. Perhaps you’d like for you, your partner, and your kids to all see the same doctor; you’d want to make an appointment with a family physician. If you have a chronic condition like diabetes or asthma, on the other hand, you may want to look for a doctor of internal medicine.

Your insurance company will list a provider’s type on their profile page, and may include information on other areas of specialty they may have, such as women’s health. You may also want to look for a doctor who’s affiliated with a large medical center, since primary care physicians in a hospital-based practice can make referrals to providers in the same medical center, easily share records, and communicate with the rest of a hospital-based team.

4. Look for referrals, reviews, and recommendations

This is the toughest step in finding a primary care physician. Once you’ve narrowed down your potential primary care providers by neighborhood and specialty, you’ll want to figure out which of them might be a good fit for you. If you have family and friends in town, you can ask if they know any of the doctors on your list. If you already have a doctor you see for specialist treatments, such as a chiropractor or cardiologist, try asking them for a referral. A recommendation from someone you know personally is ideal, since you can trust the referral source.

Another option is to turn to the internet for reviews and ratings. Doctor’s offices are businesses, and there’s no shortage of doctor reviews. Online doctor reviews can give you useful insights into the quality of care they provide, as well as how their office and billing departments operate.

5. Evaluate the ease of office communication and scheduling

A great doctor that’s impossible to get hold of is perhaps not so great after all.You want a primary care doctor whose staff is as good as they are, and who’s easy to interface with. When you search listings and start reaching out to offices, look at your prospective doctor’s office hours. Ask if there’s a nurse or nurse practitioner on staff who can answer routine medical questions. You may also want to ask if someone is on call after hours (heads up: there’s usually an extra charge for calls outside of office hours).

Many doctors, especially those affiliated with hospitals, have an online portal where you can send online messages to request prescription refills and ask non-urgent medical questions. Most allow you to fill out paperwork ahead of time online, saving time at the office. Take note of how quickly your call is returned, how soon your appointment is scheduled, and how courteous the office staff is.  A doctor’s office staff reflects on their practice, and the way the people working the phones and booking the appointments treat you can tell you a lot about the doctor’s concern for their patients.

6. Judge their thoroughness and knowledge firsthand

On your first visit, you may be getting a physical exam, but you’ll also be examining your doctor.

  • Do they seem to have read through your paperwork ahead of your meeting, and come in knowing your name and basic health stats?
  • Do they ask meaningful medical questions and take down a thorough medical history?
  • Do they suggest appropriate lab work, vaccines, and follow-up care?
  • Do they rush through your exam?
  • Do they give you a chance to ask questions?

Try to subjectively assess the quantity and quality of attention your prospective primary care physician seems to be paying to you. Notice whether they seem knowledgeable about medical issues that are of concern to you. If they can’t answer a question you have, do they seem dismissive or commit to looking into it and getting back to you to address your concern? Do they bring up current research to support their medical advice?

With their training and status, it can be easy to defer to doctors as the experts in charge of your medical care, rather than evaluating them as you would any other service provider, like a mechanic or contractor. Keep in mind that you get to make the final judgment call about whether to trust this professional with your health, and look for indicators of their competence and quality.

7. Decide if you have a rapport

A doctor-patient relationship that is strong and open will result in better communication and better overall care. You want to feel that you can trust your primary care doctor, and to be comfortable enough to ask medical questions that may be sensitive, such as sexual health or gastrointestinal concerns.

You may have an immediate sense of rapport with your prospective primary care physician, or you may need some time to get to know them better before deciding if this is someone you’d like to work with. There are a few basic interpersonal qualities to look for in a prospective primary care doctor.

  • Do they reassure you and put you at ease, while still delivering information honestly and directly?
  • Do they encourage you to ask questions about your health care or their own practices?
  • Do they explain technical things like lab results and vital stats in plain English, and tell you what they mean in terms of your health?
  • Do they project a non-judgmental attitude?
  • Do they involve you in decisions related to your medical care, instead of giving you directions from a position of authority?

Decide if this is a doctor-patient relationship with long-term potential, and trust your gut.

V. Sources