How to Choose a New Primary Care Doctor

When it comes to navigating the health care system, it can be confusing and overwhelming with the various types of doctors.

While there are many types of specialists, like a cardiologist or oncologist, that provide care for specific cases and instances, the one type of doctor everyone should have is a primary care doctor.

Primary care doctors serve as your first point of contact for your general health needs and concerns.

[SEE: How to Describe Medical Symptoms to Your Doctor.]

Why You Need a Primary Care Physician

Although some people use urgent care or the emergency room for their primary care needs, that doesn’t allow you to build a trusted, long-term relationship with one provider, says internal medicine physician Dr. James Wantuck, chief medical officer and cofounder of the telehealth platform PlushCare.

By building a relationship over time, your provider becomes a detective to find out what’s wrong when something isn’t right with your health. They can monitor changes or trends in your health over time to diagnose, treat and prevent any new health problems that may arise.

General and preventive care and services primary care providers offer include:

— Annual physicals and checkups

— Blood tests

Health screenings

— Routine vaccinations

— Common and/or minor health issues, such as colds, flu, ear infections, rashes and insect bites

— Chronic conditions, including allergies, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and skin conditions.

Women’s health care, such as birth control, pelvic exams and Pap smears.

If you have a complex or specific medical condition that requires particular expertise, your primary care physician can refer you to see a medical specialist.

[READ: Health Questions to Ask Your Doctor]

Types of Primary Care Physicians and Providers

There are several types of doctors who work as primary care physicians. Here’s a breakdown of the types of doctors who are PCPs.

Family medicine physician

A family medicine physician cares for the whole person through all stages of life, from birth to older age. They will focus on seeing you as a whole person rather than just one specific health problem, says Dr. Ada Stewart, board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians and a practicing family physician in Columbia, South Carolina.

A family medicine doctor will earn their four-year undergraduate degree, a medical degree and then take part in a three-year residency program.

Internal medicine physician

Also called internists, an internal medicine physician specializes in care for adults age 18 and over. This includes diagnosing, treating and helping to prevent health problems.

An internal medicine doctor will earn their four-year undergraduate degree, a medical degree and then take part in a three-year residency program.


A pediatrician cares for children and young adults. Many pediatricians offer care through age 21, but some may advocate that you try to find a new provider around the age of 18.

After getting their medical degree, a pediatrician takes part in a three-year residency program for specialized training related to caring for children.


An OB-GYN can be a primary care provider for some women, particularly young, healthy women. However, OB-GYNs specialize in reproductive health and aren’t equipped to handle problems like strep throat, COVID-19 or other health issues beyond women’s health. Also, many family medicine and internal medicine physicians will handle routine gynecological care, such as Pap smears.

Nurse practitioner or physician assistant

A nurse practitioner or a physician assistant can be a primary care provider. Although they are not medical doctors, they work closely with physicians and will refer to their supervising doctor, says Dr. Susan Besser, a primary care provider specializing in family medicine at Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore. In many states, nurse practitioners have the same prescriptive authority as doctors and can prescribe medications, but there are certain states that only allow medical doctors to issue certain prescriptions.

MD vs. DO Degrees

When you see a primary care physician, you may notice that some have an MD (doctor of medicine) degree, while others have a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degree. Both receive similar training, but DOs study 300 to 500 hours of osteopathic manipulation, which is a hands-on approach used to treat the musculoskeletal system.

[READ MD vs. DO: What’s the Difference?]

General Practice vs. Internal Medicine

A general practice and an internal medicine practice will both provide primary care near you. Both general practitioners and internal medicine doctors have an undergraduate degree, go to medical school and complete a residency.

However, a general practitioner provides general primary care for all ages. An internal medicine doctor will focus on primary care for adults age 18 and older. If you begin to see an internal medicine doctor as an adult, your children wouldn’t be able to see the same doctor.

Choosing a New Primary Care Doctor

If you have to choose a new primary care doctor because of a change in health insurance, a move or changing medical needs, consider these following tips.

1. Ask friends or family.

Many referrals to a primary care provider come from friends or family members. Their recommendation can be helpful because that person knows you well.

However, a stamp of approval from a friend or family member doesn’t always mean the doctor is a good match for you. You’ll have different health issues than your friend or family member.

Plus, the personality mix of the doctor and patient together is the real key to a successful relationship, says Dr. Ruth Brocato, a primary care provider specializing in family medicine at Mercy Personal Physicians at Lutherville, Maryland. If a friend or family member likes a doctor, ask what they like about that provider. This will help you determine if there’s a potential match for you.

2. Check online reviews.

Online reviews are popular, but they should only be a starting point when choosing a new primary care provider. It’s always helpful if you see mostly positive reviews, as that likely indicates the doctor cares about his or her public image. However, negative reviews may not always be accurate, and all reviews are anecdotal.

— Use U.S. News’s doctor directory to find a doctor near you. U.S News uses patient experience ratings and provider expertise to help patients choose a doctor.

[READ: Americans’ Primary Care Experiences, Preferences 2024 Survey Report]

3. Check the doctor’s background credentials.

This is usually easy to find on the practice’s website. You can use their online information to check the following:

— Is the doctor licensed in your state? You can find out where a doctor is licensed to practice and their education background at the Federation of State Medical Boards website.

— What is the doctor’s specialty: family medicine or internal medicine?

— Is the doctor board certified? Board certification refers to a special exam that doctors can study for and pass after completing medical school. Doctors aren’t required to complete board certification, but it adds an extra layer of testing of knowledge. Board certification also requires courses that refresh the doctor’s knowledge every few years.

If it’s important to you, you’ll also want to take into account if the doctor is male or female.

4. Ask about health insurance coverage.

You can whittle down costs when you see a primary care provider who’s covered by your private health insurance plan or Medicare or Medicaid. Many health insurance plans will require you a copay for each appointment, and the plan will cover the remaining cost. Insurance plans have online tools to help you verify which local primary care providers accept your insurance.

You can also contact your insurance company (by phone or online) to find providers in your area. If you find a primary care provider you like, but their office doesn’t accept your insurance, talk to the provider’s staff. They may be able to arrange an affordable self-pay option. The same is true if you don’t have any health care coverage. If you have health insurance, your plan still may pay for a portion of the appointment as an out-of-network visit.

5. Consider the office location.

How close is the office to your home? Beyond that, find out if there’s parking or if the office is close to a bus or subway line. If you or a family member has special needs, ask in advance if the office has an elevator and ramps for wheelchairs and walkers, Stewart advises.

6. Ask how long it takes to get an appointment.

You can do this by calling the office and simply asking them how quickly a patient can usually get an appointment. You’ll also want to ask if they have same-day appointments in case you get sick and need to be seen urgently.

It also can be helpful to know how the doctor handles after-hours emergencies and non-emergencies, Stewart says. For example, is there another on-call physician, or does the office use an answering service to field nighttime calls? Another consideration nowadays: Does the office have telehealth appointments?

7. When visiting, consider how long your wait time is.

You usually can expect some waiting at any doctor’s office, but you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable with the average wait time. That comes with a caveat.

“Obviously, wait time is important, and I aim to be on time, but realize that I may have been delayed because I was comforting a new widow, talking to a parent whose child is struggling in school or even giving a patient a new cancer diagnosis,” Brocato explains.

8. Evaluate how well the primary care provider listens.

Does the doctor take the time to listen to your concerns? Do you feel comfortable opening up to him or her?

As part of this, find out about their philosophy of medical care to see if you agree with it, Besser advises.

For instance, do they prefer to prescribe medications, or are they more interested in starting with lifestyle changes? Which do you prefer? The doctor’s focus on prevention of chronic diseases, rather than only treating something once a condition develops, also can be important.

If you have a preexisting condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, ask if the doctor regularly treats patients with your condition.

Some patients may also wish to ask if the doctor regularly treats LGBTQ patients.

9. Take cues from the office environment.

Staff friendliness and office cleanliness can help indicate the type of care you’ll receive.

When choosing a new primary care physician, you can set up a meet-and-greet visit to get a better feel for that person and the office. You’ll find out more information during that visit to help with your decision. You also can ask the doctor’s office if they offer a trial period, so you can see over a few appointments if you feel comfortable going there. Even if they don’t formally offer this, you should still be able to look for a new primary care provider when you want to switch to someone new.

Bottom Line

As you try to pinpoint the right primary care provider, keep in mind that it’s an ongoing, collaborative relationship. You don’t want to contact the provider only when you’re sick.

Stay in touch for preventive care appointments, immunizations and when you need emotional or mental health support. By staying in touch, the provider gets to know you better, which helps to build a stronger relationship.

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How to Choose a New Primary Care Doctor originally appeared on

Update 07/09/24: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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