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How do I choose a great primary care doctor?

February 14, 2019   |   By Sagar Shah MD

Since my first day of training as a family medicine physician, dozens of friends and family members have asked how to choose a great primary care doctor. Until recently, I didn’t know how to respond to them. Truthfully, there is no robust system for choosing the perfect doctor. While computer-generated statistics can help a baseball team recruit the perfect pitcher and Angie’s list can supply you with a great mechanic, we have not figured out how to effectively choose our doctors.

This is not for lack of trying. Websites such as HealthGrades,, and RateMDs have ranked doctors for years now. Patients rarely use these sites, though, and they often serve as forums for personal complaints rather than true measures of quality medical care. Complex scoring systems such as the Press Ganey Questionnaire measure patient satisfaction after office visits and hospitalizations, and Medicare quality measures count how frequently doctors are ordering the correct preventative services, but these numbers don’t fully capture the sacred human interaction between doctors and the patients.

The quality of your relationship with your doctor is the most underestimated element of modern health care. When you can trust your doctor and feel comfortable enough to connect with him or her during an office visit, you will live a healthier life. Consider a small study from my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Dave Rakel, one of the fathers of modern integrative medicine, conducted a study to test how his behavior during cough and cold season affected his patients’ health. He divided patients with common colds into three equal groups: patients who cared for themselves at home, patients who came to clinic and were treated poorly (a rushed visit, lack of empathy from the doctor), and patients who he examined with kindness and patience. All three groups in the study received the same treatment, and he measured how long their cold symptoms lasted. Interestingly, patients who stayed home were better off than patients who had a bad doctor (they felt better one day earlier, on average), and patients who were examined in person with empathy fared the best.

After practicing family medicine in both large and small clinics in three states, I am convinced that a doctor’s patience, support, and empathy affect every medical condition. When you are sick, you want the right doctor in your corner. So here are four simple questions to consider when you look for the best relationship with your health care provider:

1) Will my doctor partner with me and empower me to make my own healthy decisions? A good doctor will help you take charge of your health through shared decision-making during the visit. A great doctor will go beyond this and help you create a health plan that centers around your life goals and keeps you in the driver’s seat.

2) Does he or she stay up to date on health care recommendations? Most of what we learn during our residency training is no longer relevant after five years. This is why it is less important that your doctor attended a top-ranked medical school and more important that your doctor never stops learning. Choose a provider who is willing to admit when he or she doesn’t know the answer but will then research the most current recommendations.

3) Can my doctor care for me without being judgmental? Your doctor should be open to your lifestyle and must be willing to both accept and embrace your core values. If you don’t feel judged, you are more likely to share the important details of your medical history and personal life with your doctor.

4) Does my doctor practice self-care? Does he or she have hobbies outside of medicine? A healthier, well-rounded, and happier provider will help you make positive life choices as well.  Many studies have validated this concept, and intuitively it makes sense that a doctor’s advice is more believable if that doctor practices what he or she preaches.

Unfortunately, you can’t find the answer to these questions on a simple google search. If you agree with my metric for good doctoring, then there are two shortcuts to connecting with the right doctor. First, it’s okay to judge the clinician by the clinic. A positive work environment that is service oriented will inspire kindness, empathy, and patience in providers. Second, seek referrals from trusted friends and family members. You’ve chosen to surround yourself by these people, so chances are, you will share the same values and interest in empathetic providers. Most important, let your doctor know that you value these qualities; many of us chose a career in medicine to connect with our patients, and a gentle reminder that you value this relationship will inspire us to work harder!