How to find a general doctor?
January 6, 2020 8:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I find a doctor? My partner and I have both been graduate students for most of the past decade and haven’t been in regular contact with (medical) doctors. The idea of making an appointment without a specific health concern is anxiety-producing--how do people do this?

I do see Planned Parenthood for my sexual health and we both also have a dentist who would see us for cheap when we were graduate students and now happily takes our insurance. We’ve both also circled in and out of therapy (thank you graduate school) although I'm out right now--perhaps my anxiety over this issue suggests that I should go back in!

I’m 100% certain that I’ve fallen out of compliance with vaccinations. I have no idea what else I’m missing in terms of general health. My partner is in the same boat--although he did have an exam when applying for a visa a few years ago--and we’ve both been relying on the local urgent care clinic for anything that has come up in the last few years.

Given that we now have health insurance through my job, it seems like it’s time for us to figure out how to use it. We both feel completely overwhelmed by the prospect of making an appointment with a doctor, who I feel like is going to judge us for having “neglected” our health for a decade.

We live in Chicago, so when I looked for doctors through our insurance website, I found a huge number who were supposedly "taking new patients" with no real idea of how to narrow them down. Are there best practices here? Or is this just something where I should start with the closest general practitioner (is that even the term I'm looking for?) and go down the list until somebody has an appointment? Should my partner and I go to the same doctor?

Also—and this is probably making me more anxious than necessary—what exactly do I say when I make the appointment? “I have no current health concerns but perhaps I should?” I am also considering trying for a pregnancy in the next few years: might “I’m considering getting pregnant and want to make sure I’m somewhat healthy before I do so” make sense? Thanks!
posted by besonders to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think you want to schedule what’s referred to as a New Patient Appointment and you’d be making it to establish yourself as, well, a new patient of the doctor in question.

This is a super common thing and will make getting future appointments quicker. No specific health concerns needed. It’s essentially your generic “annual physical/checkup” for the year + the doctor getting to know you and you getting to know them.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 9:04 PM on January 6, 2020 [12 favorites]

First, to allay one source of anxiety: you want to make an appointment for a "wellness visit." That's basically a checkup to make sure your vitals, blood levels, etc. are normal and to establish a baseline for future visits. It's a completely normal part of modern medicine. Depending on your age, you might schedule such visits every few years; by the time you turn 50, your doctor will probably expect to schedule one every year, though the evidence is iffy about whether that's really useful.

As for finding a doctor: I would ask co-workers at your job, who presumably have the same or similar insurance plan, which doctor they go to and whether they like them (and if so, why--the answers could be quite revealing). Then use your insurance plan website to find out which of the reasonable prospects are taking new patients. It's a plus, in my experience, if they're part of a medium-sized practice, with perhaps 10-15 physicians, physician assistants (PAs), and nurse practitioners (NPs): you want a practice that's large enough that if you need to see someone urgently, you can, even if it's not your regular doctor, but small enough that you're not seeing someone different every time.

You're looking for general medicine or family medicine, not any specialties. (Family medicine includes doctors who work with both pediatric and adult patients.) If you're sporty, though, it can help to look for a practice that has a sports medicine specialist on its staff. That's been helpful to me for recovery from various dumbass running injuries.

Once you've found a potential doctor and practice, call up and ask whether (a) Dr. X is taking new patients and (b) they still accept your insurance (in case the website is out of date). If the answer to both is yes, say you'd like to schedule a wellness visit. Since you're concerned about vaccines, you can mention that; if you know where your previous medical records are, the new practice can contact the old and get them, or you could contact the old practice and bring the records in.

This is all totally normal, and no good doctor is going to judge you for not doing more. Also, remember that your first meeting with the doctor is your chance to figure out if they're likely to work well with you. My first "regular" adult doctor was a snarky fatalist; I got along really well with him, but I could imagine that he might have turned off a number of other patients. If you find a practice that's convenient, but you don't get along with the doctor, you can always try someone else.

Good luck!
posted by brianogilvie at 9:04 PM on January 6, 2020 [13 favorites]

Hey, that's awesome that you're doing a kind of intimidating thing and jumping back on this now that your life's in a position to do it. Doctors and health stuff give me tons of anxiety, so I get the hesitation, and god knows the US doesn't make it easy, but what you're describing is generally very doable.

ZocDoc was a good resource for me when I was fresh out of grad school and getting set up in a new city. It sounds like you probably want to start by looking for a primary care doctor. Besides a bunch of useful filters like insurance, it also lets you see available appointment times and read reviews of the providers. That said, I personally have had better experience getting referrals from friends (and especially coworkers, since they're more likely to be with the same insurance company), if you have anyone you're comfortable asking.

As for what to say, they'll probably want to do some sort of physical/medical history as part of setting you up as a new patient, but it sounds like what you want is a wellness exam. I wish I could promise you won't run into any assholes, but I generally haven't, or at least not about a situation like yours, which is pretty common. This is also a good opportunity have them confirm they accept your insurance. I do not personally bother to get it verified in writing before the appointment, but I know people who do and it's not a crazy request.
posted by jameaterblues at 9:12 PM on January 6, 2020

I suggest asking around your office for recommendations. As a bonus you can check with your colleagues if they take your company’s insurance.

I did this successfully to find my dentist. YMMV of course, but a heads up that the insurance info/appointment availability of my dentist is not quite right on Zoc Doc.
posted by oceano at 9:41 PM on January 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

Finding any professional can be a little intimidating.

When I found out my new job had medical/dental insurance I didn't have a clue on who to choose either. So I used the wrong method: just pick the nearest GP in the directory. When I went to the first appointment, the receptionist let me know what I wanted to see was an internist. I sort of had a clue I was in the wrong place because the waiting room was filled with kids toys.

The first time I went to the dentist I did the same thing: pick the office closest to my home. I got the full treatment: baking soda blasting (which I didn't know was a thing,) that big 180 degree x-ray, poking and prodding with tools. The dentist then delivered his verdict, "Your teeth look fine, but you have all four of your wisdom teeth. I'll pull those." When I asked him why, he told me it "was his policy to remove any potential problems, and wisdom teeth always caused problems."
Since my policy was to avoid unnecessary procedures, I never went back.

Six months later a woman at work suggested a dentist, and my coworker gave me his doctor's name. I'm still with both today, but now I live in fear of my doc retiring.
posted by Marky at 11:31 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Others have covered how to find a doctor, so I'd like to address your concerns that a doctor will think you were "neglecting" your health. It's actually super, super common for people to not have had a regular doctor for a long time these days, because health insurance was so messed up for so long. There were a lot of people who didn't have health insurance until the Affordable Care Act, and even after the act there are a lot of people who put off going to the doctor until they get something that they can point to as being a "problem".

So I wanted to reassure you that your doctor is not going to shame you for having 'Neglected your health for a decade" - on the contrary, you are probably going to make their day. ("Neat! I have a patient who wants to take active control of their own health!")

....The last time I looked for a new professional, it was a dentist - I found Zocdoc and Yelp to both be helpful. I found a couple options on Zocdoc, and then checked their reviews on Yelp. Yelp reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, but they do give detail about what the patient experience might be like; one dentist in particular was being praised over and over for being able to work with patients on pricing, and for his bedside manner, so I went with him (and he was indeed great).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:29 AM on January 7, 2020 [10 favorites]

Your health insurance website should let you narrow them down by specialization. What you want is a primary care physician or PCP. You can then narrow down by location. Choose either close to work or close to home. The latter is better if you ever do get sick. As a woman you might prefer a female doctor.

It's not like going to the dentist where they might shame you if you haven't had your teeth cleaned in years. Don't worry about doctors wondering why you haven't had a doctor in years. You're generally healthy and young ; you just haven't needed one. Any doctor you meet will get that, they've spent endless years in grad school too.

You and your partner should choose your own doctors.

Last time I was looking for a PCP I narrowed it down to a handful and then googled them. I've had her now for several years and we're a good fit.
posted by mareli at 3:31 AM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Just for an international perspective - here in the UK, it's not common to go to the doctor without a health concern, though "health check visits" are offered to the over-40s. The NHS (a decent healthcare system, despite what you might have heard - though it is under-funded) has to be somewhat evidence-based, and there's little evidence that such wellness visits actually serve any purpose. But if it's a requirement of your new doctor, then just shrug your shoulders and do it, and schedule a catch-up for any vaccinations you might have missed. If you've been seeing the dentist and Planned Parenthood regularly, you're already taking good care of those parts of your health that need regular attention.

One thing I imagine is common to doctors everywhere is that however embarrassed you are, they have seen it all before.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:38 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

... now I live in fear of my doc retiring.
posted by Marky

Ask your doctor and the receptionist for a referral when they retire. When my doctor retired, the clinic hired two new primary care physicians to replace him. I still go to one of them.
I also live in dread of the time when my dentist and his receptionist retire. By this time most of my health care professionals have either retired or their offices have moved further away and they have reduced their practice hours.

Seconding recommendations from coworkers and friends. Get the shots up to date (Wal-Mart provides flu shots without using my well patient visit), get the teeth cleaned (so much easier after the first visit and then scheduling every six months), and get the eyes examined.
Also, I use Wal-Mart for my pharmacy because I have filled prescriptions out-of-state before.
posted by TrishaU at 4:31 AM on January 7, 2020

Minor point of order:

General practitioners don't really exist in the US anymore, although the term GP still gets thrown around as a synonym of PCP (primary care physician). A GP was someone who did med school + 1 year rotating supervised internship and then stuck out his shingle (almost always his). In the 1970s, given the increasing complexity of medical care, that model transitioned to requiring a 3 year residency + board certification before independent clinical practice (and since 1990, re-certification examinations usually every 10 years). Technically, I guess someone could still advertise their services without being boarded, but that's a risky proposition. I am 99% sure you need to be board certified to obtain a license to practice medicine, and you can verify the person's licensure status yourself on the Illinois State Board website.

Primary care = family medicine (kids and adults), internal medicine (adults only), or pediatrics (kids only); sometimes an OB/GYN is considered a PCP as they do the bulk of women's health, but they aren't trained in actual primary care. There is also med-peds, which is a newer specialty that sees both adults and kids; in my experience they tend to gravitate toward hospital medicine rather than outpatient, though.

Your choice of IM vs FM kind of depends on your preferences; if you plan to have kids at any point (sounds like you do), sometimes it's nice to have one doctor able to see the whole family. The MD and DO degrees are for all intents and purposes identical.

The other thing to consider are hospital privileges. It's rare to have an outpatient physician make hospital rounds anymore (just time constraints) but it's really useful if your PCP is integrated with whatever the nearest big hospital system is -- likely either Northwestern or Rush depending on where you live in Chicago. That avoids the annoyance of discharge summaries getting lost in faxland, if they can just log in to the computer and see the notes, testing, and scans from any hospitalization.

I also encourage anyone planning a preventative care visit/annual physical to take a gander at the US Preventative Services Task Force list of recommendations. These are the things that are supposed to be covered by all health plans under the ACA, but always, always double-check your own insurance website. The biggest challenge is with labs; there's no way for your PCP to know which lab is in-network for you -- sometimes even if the PCP is in-network and the blood is drawn in their office, the lab gets processed by an out-of-network (for you) facility.
posted by basalganglia at 5:04 AM on January 7, 2020 [4 favorites]

Oh! Also if you are thinking about becoming pregnant in the next year or so, start taking folic acid now. It helps prevent neural tube defects that occur before you even know you're pregnant, so starting it after you get the double blue lines is usually too late.

(Not medical advice, just general advice.)
posted by basalganglia at 5:08 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

It is okay that you have "neglected" seeing a doctor. There is nothing wrong or unusual about this. I am sure if you had symptoms or a problem you would have sought medical attention, and you already see a provider. I am assuming you are young. Statistically you're probably healthy. My primary physician told me a couple years ago -- "You're healthy. You won't have any problems until your sixties." This might be a wild statement and he has no crystal ball, but he's stating that medical problems (hypertension, osteoporosis) typically present when we're older. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't have medical problems at any age but most of the time youth equals health.

As a registered nurse, I will say: Do not be afraid. It doesn't matter if you've never seen a primary physician. Nobody cares and they won't blink an eye. Get established with a primary physician in town. When you call the office, ask "Are you taking new patients?" If they are, state that you would "like to make an appointment for a first visit to become established". On this visit, they will ask about your medical, social, and surgical history and doctor or NP or PA will give you a physical -- probably not a full physical but will listen to your heart, lungs, look in your throat and ears, address any concerns you have, and write an order for baseline labs. If you have a problem, you might have a followup in a month or so or you might be referred to a specialist . Problems or not, you will make another appointment for next year. It's easy. Good luck.
posted by loveandhappiness at 5:35 AM on January 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

You alluded to this in the question, but I don't have a car and I do indeed select providers based on proximity to my home and/or public transportation. In my opinion that is a valid strategy if you have the option.
posted by CheeseLouise at 5:38 AM on January 7, 2020

I fully encourage you to find a physician and have a New Patient Appointment. This is a good idea so 1) your doctor can schedule any tests and vaccinations you need, and 2) you have a doctor to call if you have a specific concern. As you know, it's hard enough to find a doctor when you're healthy and not in a rush; you don't want to be scrambling when you're sick.

That said, healthy non-elderly people don't generally need regular physicals. For more detail, see the many links on this previous answer.

And that's another reason why no good doctor (and I think the vast majority are good) will judge you for having "neglected" your health: you weren't. (Unless you're smoking, drinking heavily, never exercising, having unprotected sex with strangers, and riding your motorcycle without a helmet. In those cases, your doctor will advise you to stop those behaviors, though hopefully without any apparent judgement.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:24 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

You're in Chicago!

My PCP in Chicago was James Nee, near North and Clybourn. He was fantastic, and I miss having him as my doctor. I highly recommend him. (Bonus: I randomly got assigned to him by my insurance when I needed a doctor our first year there.)
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:59 AM on January 7, 2020

At this point, assuming you are in the US, most people under 40 (or 50 even) with no ongoing health conditions do not have an ongoing routinely-seen physician unless it is a gynecologist. You are going to be a completely average patient for your new doctor in that way.

As far as finding a doctor, one place I check but with a HUGE grain of salt is Yelp. There's going to be angry reviews for all practices and doctors, they're like banks and airlines in that some part of the population is going to be pissed about something. What I look for is a) a strong pattern in negative reviews about something meaningful (as in I ignore all complaints about being made to wait or not returning a phone call once or insurance problems but I do look for reports of the practice trying to push any kind of upsell/bullshit quackery or hating fat people or being dismissive/disinterested in anxiety and depression) b) patterns in the good reviews. If those patterns fit my own values and concerns, I most those doctors higher up the list.

Yelp is also a good way to make sure the practice is even open still and at the address you expect. Insurance company directories are miserably crap for up-to-date information most of the time.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:09 AM on January 7, 2020

I've concidered changing my pcp to aayu clinics (they have a few locations ) l because I keep using them for urgent care. I like that they are both a PCP and an urgent care.
I have a PCP who I love in Bridgeport if you want the name memail me.

It's common that people have a decade or more of adulthood before people start thinking about establishing care. It's normal, just call find somebody you like and stick with them.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:10 AM on January 7, 2020

I totally choose my medical providers based on proximity! It's a way to get started, and you can always change to a different provider if you don't like the first one you try (though you may want to make sure you understand your insurance's rules around changing PCPs). My PCP is the doctor at the practice nearest to my home who was available closest to when I wanted to go to the doctor. I like her fine; I don't have any major medical issues and generally get on well with doctors so I don't feel any particular need to be picky. My therapist is across the street from my work, same deal. My dentist I chose based on Yelp reviews (and she is amazing).
posted by mskyle at 8:04 AM on January 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

I recommend choosing a doctor that is convenient to you, and is part of a group of doctors. This way, if you wake up with a illness you should be able to get to see someone there that day, regardless of if your primary doctor is available.

You are entitled to an annual well person exam. Get your blood pressure, blood sugar, and other lab tests done. Decide if screenings such as skin cancer need to be done. Develop a relationship with the practice, and you will be more comfortable in the future getting things taken care of as they come up.

Getting a doctor you can call your own is one of those things, like retirement savings, that is part of the whole grown up adult thing.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2020

25 years ago, I moved to a new city and needed to find a doctor. I asked around the office, specifically asking the secretaries if there was a doctor that they recommended. They were unanimous in their recommendation and I still see the doctor they recommended. And I worship her and am super compliant with anything she asks me to do because she is that good. If I had undertaken this using the insurance website, I would have probably bounced from doctor to doctor forever.
posted by janey47 at 10:52 AM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

A big reason for establishing a doctor - patient relationship before you need it is that many medical practices in the US (especially good ones) will limit the number of new patients they will take. However, if you are an established patient they have "sick visit" slots you can get when you are actually sick. New patients don't get access to those appt. slots. I waited two months for a new patient appt. with my current PCP because they accept one new patient per day. When I was sick later that year they saw me same day.
posted by COD at 2:36 PM on January 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

I want to mention that monitoring for semi-routine conditions, like levels of thyroid hormone that would prompt investigation and perhaps medication would not actually be done by an urgent care clinic. For the kind of things that need periodic monitoring or are preventive, like vaccinations and other common conditions are not done at these doc-in-a-box encounters. They are intended for one-off accidents or illnesses.

A primary care doctor will know your history, which can be important in connecting dots for some conditions and just can't be replicated by a practice that may have seen you only once or twice when you sprained your ankle or had strep throat. Even if you don't always use the primary doctor for every issue, you have a "home base" that has your back. And if you do need medication for any reason, a doc that has a history with you is much more likely to agree to call in a refill.
posted by citygirl at 3:00 PM on January 7, 2020

If you're concerned about vaccinations, here is a good resource:

You can either look at the general adult schedule or fill out a short set of questions to get a personalized list of specific vaccines you may need based on age, gender, health conditions, etc.

At your age, I'd guess the most relevant ones would be seasonal flu every year, TDAP or the booster, and maybe an MMR booster; some people who had their childhood MMR shots before they increased the recommendations from 1 dose to 2 doses need a boost. If you haven't had chicken pox or the vaccine, they'll likely want that too.

Definitely do mention that you're looking at possible pregnancy soon, and that you'd like to know pre-conception health steps you can take - vaccines, folic acid as mentioned above, whatever.

It's good to be established with the practice, as mentioned above, because they will know your history and can work you in when you're sick if you're already in their system. Some of my doctors I picked based on reviews but I've also picked several based on proximity and that's fine! The main thing is, your doctor is an expert that you are paying to perform a service- maintenance on your body. They aren't a Stern Authority you need to be afraid of, they're like a mechanic for humans! Don't be afraid to change if the first one you try doesn't work for you for some reason.

Online reviews can be helpful but I take with a huuuuuuuuge pinch of salt and mainly look for major red flags or themes that seem consistent across a broad number of different sources. Referrals from friends or co-workers can help as well.

One exception is that if you are ever looking for a *specialist*, sometimes you will get really good reviews/referrals from patient groups or similar for the type of disease they treat - there are a lot of excellent, detailed and useful reviews for bariatric surgeons to be found on bariatric surgery patient support forums, for example. I found a PCP who was great at managing hypothyroid from reviews on a thyroid support site, and I've been at the practice for nearly 20 years even though I now more usually see one of his PAs or NPs. So if you *do* have any particular health concerns, that might be one potential avenue to explore.
posted by oblique red at 3:02 PM on January 9, 2020

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