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How to Choose a Primary Care Provider

Contributor(s):
Kyle Morawski, MD, MPH, and Graham Dresden, MD
|
May 1, 2022
- 7 min read
A primary care provider standing in an exam room

Your health journey is unique and personal. You want a health care team made up of experts who understand your medical history and support your health through preventive care, diagnosis, and treatment. A team you can trust that’s tailored to you. A team that understands where you want to be and helps you get there.

That’s where your primary care provider comes in. 

What is a primary care provider?

A primary care provider (PCP) is your main health care provider in non-emergency situations. They are typically the person you meet with most regularly for routine checkups, common medical concerns, and questions about your health. Doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, and physician’s assistants are all examples of PCPs. 

As the expert on your health care team who will likely know you best, your PCP’s role is to:

  • Provide preventive care, like annual physicals, routine health screenings, and vaccinations
  • Guide healthy lifestyle choices
  • Identify and treat common medical conditions
  • Assess the urgency of your medical problems and direct you to the best provider and place for that care
  • Make referrals to medical specialists when necessary

And because these providers develop years-long, trusting relationships with their patients, they tend to have the most complete understanding of patients’ medical histories. 

“In trying to achieve optimal health there are many things that can be done in health care, but I view the primary care doctor’s role as guiding a patient in what should be done,” says Kyle Morawski, MD, MPH, a Mass General Brigham internal medicine doctor. “The primary care relationship is best suited to help understand your goals, and then work with you to achieve them.” 

Are there different kinds of PCPs?

Yes. Doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical nurses, and physician’s assistants all may be PCPs. PCPs can specialize in many areas, including the following areas of expertise:

  • Family medicine, treating both children and adults and often caring for entire families
  • Geriatrics, treating patients aged 65 and older 
  • Internal medicine, focusing on adult medical care 
  • Obstetrics and gynecology, specializing in reproductive health 
  • Pediatrics, treating children from infancy through the age of 18

Learn about Mass General Brigham Integrated Care


Choosing a PCP

Choosing a primary care provider is an important task. After all, you’re looking for someone you’ll see for a long time and with whom you’ll build a relationship. This is the health care provider who will know the most about your health history—so it’s important that you choose a provider who makes you feel comfortable, someone you can trust. 

“You’ll want to find someone that you ‘fit’ well with, someone with whom you can feel comfortable talking about anything,” says Graham Dresden, MD, a family medicine doctor at Mass General Brigham. “And behind that strong relationship will be a host of amazingly talented doctors and access to world-class specialists.“  

When choosing a provider, take your health insurance into account. Many insurance plans limit the providers you can choose from, or offer financial incentives for you if you select from a set list of providers. Before you begin narrowing your options, make sure you understand what your insurance covers. Many health plans have websites, directories, or customer service staff who can aid you in PCP selection. For example, if you are an AllWays Health Partners member, you can find a provider in your network.

Once you’ve identified a list of covered providers, consider the following:

  • What are you looking for in a provider? 
  • Is the provider’s office in a convenient location for you? Is it easily accessible via car, train, bus, or walking?
  • Are you seeking primary care for your entire family, for a senior loved one, or for yourself?
  • Do the office hours work with your schedule?

During your search, you may consider asking family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues if they have any recommendations for providers. Referrals can also come from:

  • Another trusted health provider, such as your dentist, pharmacist, or optometrist
  • State-level medical associations, nursing associations, and associations for physician assistants
  • Advocacy groups who can help you identify the best provider for a specific chronic condition or disability
You’ll want to find someone that you ‘fit’ well with, someone with whom you can feel comfortable talking about anything. And behind that strong relationship will be a host of amazingly talented doctors and access to world-class specialists.

Graham Dresden, MD
Family Medicine Doctor
Mass General Brigham

Getting to know your PCP

You may find it difficult to open yourself up to a total stranger—but you realize that transparency is critical to a successful provider-patient relationship. Consider asking your provider some key questions that can help you understand them and their work. 

Questions might include: 

  • What is your treatment approach? 
  • How do you prefer to handle patient communications? Do you prefer to respond by text, email, phone, or another method?
  • How do you think of the provider-patient relationship? Do you consider patients to be partners in their care, or do you take a more independent approach? 
  • How do you work with other members of your team? 

Primary and specialty care collaboration

Once you find a PCP who meets your needs, you’ll have the foundation for a trustworthy care team that helps you manage every aspect of your health. As the expert with deepest understanding of your medical history, your PCP can refer you to the right specialists who can address chronic health conditions and acute needs. Referrals are only part of the picture when it comes to your holistic health. Clear communication and cooperation across your care team is what makes the biggest difference.

Mass General Brigham recognizes the critical role of high-quality, coordinated care for optimal health. Across our system, providers work closely together to deliver personalized care for all patients at every stage in their journey. For example, our Integrated Care providers use a relationship-centered approach to deliver collaborative primary care, behavioral health, and specialty care in one convenient location in local communities. Learn more about the advantages of Integrated Care

What if I don’t have a PCP and need care?

If you are between PCPs when a minor health care problem arises, contact your local urgent care center. Urgent care teams are able to treat common illnesses and injuries for walk-in patients. But: always head to an emergency room if you have a serious injury or illness that may be life-threatening. 

Finally, consider conducting an online search. Many providers have profiles online that feature their treatment approaches, research, areas of specialization, and more. You can also often find patient reviews of providers that may help you understand their approach to care.

Kyle Morawski, MD, MPH headshot

Contributor

Contributor

Kyle Morawski, MD, MPH Kyle Morawski, MD, MPH
Internal medicine doctor
1 Mount Auburn Street
Watertown, MA 02472
Graham Dresden, MD headshot

Contributor

Contributor

Graham Dresden, MD Graham Dresden, MD
Family medicine doctor
1 Mount Auburn Street
Watertown, MA 02472