There are two main types of doctors: primary care doctors and specialists. Primary care physicians are the ones you turn to for your regular check-ups and when you first notice a symptom that you want checked out. Specialists are the ones you turn to when there is something in particular wrong with you that requires special training and knowledge.

It is very helpful to have a good primary care physician (PCP) who knows your history, makes sure you get all the recommended screening tests and can help you navigate the health care system if you get sick.

A good PCP can help keep you healthy through routine preventive care and advice on your diet and other lifestyle habits; explain treatment options; recommend and coordinate your care from specialists; safely keep track of your medications prescribed by various doctors; and help you make informed health decisions. Ideally this person should be someone whose professional advice you trust, who makes you feel comfortable, and who understands the process of aging and its effects on the body.

To find the right doctor for you, think about what you need and what you want. Do you need a doctor who is in your private health plan’s network? Would you prefer a male doctor or a female doctor? Should your doctor be a specialist in a particular field? A PCP can be a general practitioner (for anyone), family practitioner (for anyone), internist (for adults), geriatrician (for older adults), gynecologist (for women) or pediatrician (for children). But if you have diabetes, for example, you may want a PCP with special training in that condition.

Then do your research. Ask for referrals from friends and relatives. Check with medical societies and hospitals. Call around to doctors’ offices and run your questions by the receptionists. If possible, see if you can speak briefly with the doctor (if this is not possible -it often is not- you can tell a lot about a doctor’s office by whether the receptionist is helpful). The more you know, the better chance you will have of finding the doctor that is right for you.

Questions to consider when looking for a primary care physician:

  • Does the doctor accept Original Medicare (take assignment)?
  • Is the doctor in my private health plan’s (HMO, PPO, PFFS) network?
  • Is the doctor taking new patients?
  • Is it easy to get an appointment?
  • Is the doctor board-certified and if so, in what field?
  • What percent of the doctor’s patients are older or have disabilities?
  • Do you want a geriatrician -a doctor who is specially trained to manage the unique health concerns of older adults? Keep in mind, though, that general care physicians and internists who deal regularly with older patients or patients with disabilities can also make good primary care physicians.
  • Does the doctor have a relationship with the hospital you prefer?
  • Does the doctor explain things clearly?
  • Does the doctor listen to patients’ concerns?
  • Is the doctor’s office easy to get to?
  • What are the office hours? Are they convenient for you?
  • If you have someone who goes to doctors’ appointments with you (a caregiver such as a spouse, adult child or friend) will the doctor be willing to talk to that person?
  • Does the doctor make house calls?
  • Is the doctor available after hours or on weekends?
  • If you are not a native English speaker, would you prefer a doctor that speaks the language you are most comfortable with?
  • Does the doctor’s age or gender matter to you?