Finding a primary care provider can be confusing and very frustrating. Who do I choose? Who is taking new patients? What insurance plans do they take? What do all those different letters mean?
Let’s start with the easy one to tackle: the alphabet soup.
NP — Nurse Practitioner: This is a registered nurse who has already completed usually at a minimum four years of college, who goes on with an additional average of two to three years of training in medical interventions and advanced nursing theory.
PA — Physician Assistant: This is someone who has usually completed four years of college and gone on to complete a two-year program to become a physician assistant.
MD — Medical Doctor: This route requires four years of college, then four years of medical school, and an additional three to seven years of residency training depending on the specialty. Family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics all require a three-year residency for licensing.
DO — Doctor of Osteopathy: This route is very similar to the MD route, including the years of school and residency requirements. There is a basic difference in the focus of the medical school training, where DO trained physicians are taught “osteopathy,” or physical manipulations, but in the family medicine setting; most patients won’t see a difference in practice style between an MD and a DO.
Next: How do I choose someone? In our community, I think probably the hardest part is finding someone who is taking new patients. With continued population growth and not enough students going into primary care, there is a big gap between the number of people and the number of available providers. As much as we (providers) hate the Internet, this is a good place to find basic information about primary care providers in your area who are taking your insurance, taking new patients, and might fit you and your family’s needs. I recommend using caution with the online rating systems, as these aren’t always accurate, and ask your friends and family who they see. Oftentimes, if you choose someone who works well for your friends/family, they will work well for you. So much of primary care is finding someone you can connect and share your concerns with, or feel comfortable asking questions, and odds are that if you have a good friend who meshes well with them, you will too.
And don’t be afraid to ask if they will take you on as a new patient. For example, I am not actively taking new patients, but when a friend or family member of one of my existing patients requests to become a new patient, I do my best to take them on. It’s the reason I went into primary care — to take care of the whole family — and I love this aspect of my work as do many in primary care.
As many medical offices move into the technological world, scheduling appointments is becoming easier and easier. Many offer online scheduling, but keep in mind, many don’t, and it may still require a phone call to get an appointment and find out if they are taking new patients/your insurance/etc.
It can seem like an overwhelming task to get established with a primary care provider, but don’t wait until you are sick to do it. It can take three to four months to get a new patient appointment in many offices, so keep this in mind, and get in for a checkup before you’re in a crunch.