Doctors who retired early throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have left many people wondering what to do without the familiar family physician they trusted.
In some cases, a retiring doctor will recommend a colleague to continue your care.
But with the ongoing shortage of physicians - especially in the primary care field - waiting for a referral may not be an option.
Experts say having a primary care physician is important because they provide services to entire families and people of all ages and genders.
This often allows families to keep their entire healthcare under one “medical roof,” explains Dr. Tochi Iroku-Malize, MPH, a practicing family physician in Long Island, New York, and president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
“This offers tremendous benefits when it comes to ‘connecting the dots’ of a patient’s family medical history and potential risk factors,” Iroku-Malize told Healthline.
“Family medicine is a medical specialty focused on diagnosis, treatment, management, and coordination of whole-person healthcare. They understand the intersection of each person’s physical, mental, familial, and environmental health,” she added.
Iroku-Malize said family doctors can combine expertise across acute (sudden onset) and chronic conditions, making them uniquely positioned to provide proactive, preventive care that prioritizes long-term patient wellness.
When searching for the right doctor for your family, there are some factors to keep in mind.
Caitlin Donovan, senior director at the National Patient Advocate Foundation, said there are many factors that go into choosing the right doctor.
“First, of course, will be that the doctor is properly credentialed in either primary care or whatever specialty you need,” Donovan told Healthline.
“Once appropriate expertise has been established, consider what else you need in order to have a good relationship with your provider and actually be able to get to the doctor,” she added.
First, you’ll need to know whether or not the doctor is accepting new patients.
If they mention a wait list, ask for more information - such as how many people are on the list ahead of you or when they’ll be able to add you to their practice.
“You may also want to consider providers who can take appointments outside of traditional working hours, like early in the morning, later in the evening, or even the weekend, so that you don’t have to worry about your work schedule,” said Donovan.
“The most important factor to consider when choosing a physician is whether the physician is someone with whom you feel comfortable and can develop a long-term relationship,” said Iroku-Malize.
If you have specific concerns, this is an ideal time to ask any questions.
“Think about the type of characteristics the provider should have so that you feel comfortable,” Donovan said.
Some examples include:
Do you feel like they’re really listening to you?
Do they consider your needs?
Do they consider your financial concerns?
Iroku-Malize added that some people may also wish to inquire whether the physician cares for LGBTQ+ patients.
“You should be comfortable and confident in the physician’s abilities to treat you and coordinate care with other providers when necessary,” Iroku-Malize said.
For starters, a physician should be within your insurers’ in-network, said Donovan.
“Ask whether the physician accepts your insurance (including Medicare or Medicaid, if applicable) and if they are in your insurer’s preferred network,” said Iroku-Malize.
“This is important because it can significantly impact how much you will pay out of your own pocket for office visits and the care provided,” she added.
You may also want to consider the location of the physician’s office.
Iroku-Malize recommends asking yourself the following questions before booking your first appointment:
How far are you willing to travel?
Is there parking?
What does parking cost?
Is the office on a bus or subway line?
Is it accessible? (For instance, is there at least one elevator or wheel ramp if needed?)
Depending on your needs, you may also ask if the office and common areas are handicap accessible, she said.
How you feel while attending your first appointment matters, too.
“The office should feel safe, comfortable, efficient, and organized, with professional staff to greet and assist you,” said Iroku-Malize. “The office should also be clean, including floors, surface areas, and restrooms.”
Questions to ask the doctor
Depending on your personal health history and current or anticipated future needs, there may be other questions to consider asking.
Here’s some questions Iroku-Malize recommends:
Does the doctor offer same-day appointments? If not, what is the average wait time for an appointment?
Does the doctor perform obstetrical services? How about other well-woman care?
Will the physician provide telehealth visits to save you a trip to the office?
How does the physician care for patients with after-hours emergencies and non-emergencies? Are other physicians or medical staff on call? Is there an answering machine or service?
How does the physician convey lab results? Mail? Phone call? Patient portal?
Does the physician have hospital admitting privileges? Where?
If you’re still looking for a doctor, both Donovan and Iroku-Malize recommend checking with your insurance company for a list of in-network physicians who are accepting new patients.
This can help guide you in the right direction and narrow your search, saving you time and effort.
In cases where you’re on a wait list and need medical attention now, urgent care clinics and telehealth companies can help in some circumstances, but they’re not ideal for long-term care needs, said Iroku-Malize.
“Responsible care coordination is necessary to ensure patient safety and continuity of care for the illness being treated,” she added.
In other words, if you end up seeing a doctor before being accepted on as a new patient, someone needs to share this medical information with your future doctor.
“As such, it is important for either the patient or the treating physician to follow-up with the primary care physician or their care team regarding what transpired during the visit so it can be documented in the patient’s permanent medical record,” Iroku-Malize said.