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Choosing a Primary Care Physician or Specialist That's Right for You

Choosing a Primary Care Physician or Specialist That's Right for You

Are you picking a doctor for the first time? Have you changed jobs or moved? Has your long-established doctor recently retired? Whatever your situation, choosing a primary care physician (PCP) or specialist can be a difficult decision, especially with so many doctors out there. But it’s important to find someone you can trust to guide you in making the best decisions for your health.

A good way to start is to visit the Find a Physician section of our website. Once there, you can look up doctors by name, specialty or condition. You’ll also find doctor profiles, which contain information about their education and training, experience, board certifications and clinic locations.

For other key steps to follow when choosing a doctor for yourself or a family member, read the following excerpt from Insider’s Guide to Quality, Affordable Healthcare — a book and accompanying website aimed at helping readers become knowledgeable and active health care consumers.

Finding a Health Care Partner You Can Trust

When choosing a doctor, it’s important to find someone who will be a valued partner in your care. You’ll want someone you can trust and communicate comfortably with to help you stay healthy or recover from an illness or injury.

The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) has helpful guidance on selecting and working with a doctor of your choice. They form the basis of the following three approaches.

1. Decide what qualities and services matter most to you.
These may include having a doctor or surgeon who:

  • Is well trained and experienced in the specialty in which you need care.
  • Provides clear explanations of conditions and treatments, and welcomes questions.
  • Uses technology to improve care and communication.
  • Has a convenient office location and office hours.
  • Is part of your health care plan.

2. Compile a list of potential choices.

Ask your current health professionals, family members, co-workers and friends for recommendations.

Reputable websites to research for your list include:

  • The ABMS website to confirm board certification.
  • The American Medical Association’s “DoctorFinder” lets you search for doctors by medical specialty or name.
  • MedlinePlus’s “Directories” lets you search for doctors (both generalists and specialists), dentists and hospitals. This is a well recommended and rather unique “directory of directories” to find links to reputable health care search engines.
  • Medicare’s “Physician Compare” lets you search for providers in a zip code location by specialty (for example, cardiology) or medical condition (for example, diabetes mellitus) or an organ/organ system (for example, the heart).

Also, request a list of doctors from your health insurance provider.

3. Make a List of Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Here are some important questions to ask if you’re interviewing a doctor or seeing a new doctor for the first time. Please note that there may not be enough time to pose all these questions, and it is best to prioritize the ones that are most important to you.

  • Which hospitals do you use? Are they accredited?
  • What are your office hours?
  • Who covers for you when you are unavailable?
  • How long does it usually take to get a routine appointment?
  • How long is the typical office wait?
  • Will I have to pay if I cancel an appointment?
  • Does the office send reminders about prevention tests?
  • What do I do if I need urgent care or have an emergency?
  • Do you or someone in your office speak the language that I am most comfortable using?
  • Do you (or a nurse or physician’s assistant) give advice over the phone for common medical problems?
  • Do you use electronic medical records?

In addition to these general questions, you may wish to ask questions tailored to doctors in a particular specialty or subspecialty. For example, if you are considering a surgical procedure, you may want to ask how frequently the doctor performs the procedure, what the potential risks are and what the recovery involves.

Look for more insights from Insider’s Guide to Quality, Affordable Healthcare. For information about this book, visit

About the Authors

dr. lazarusLawrence W. Lazarus, MD, has specialized in geriatric medicine and psychiatry at Rush Medical School and University in Chicago, Illinois, where he founded the Geriatric Psychiatry Fellowship Program. He is a former president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and was awarded numerous teaching and research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Lazarus is in private practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

dr. fosterJeffrey Foster, MD, has spent his clinical and academic career with Geriatric Psychiatry as a prominent focus. He has worked closely with primary care physicians, nurses, social workers and various specialists in hospital and outpatient settings. A former President of the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry, Dr. Foster has received various teaching and research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health.


See sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. National Library of Medicine