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What makes a good doctor? Here are 7 signs you have a great one
Your primary care provider is typically the first stop on your way to better health. Make sure they’re the right fit for you by looking for these seven important traits.
Having a strong relationship with your primary care provider (PCP) is one of the keys to healthy living. Your PCP is the first person you may call when you’re feeling under the weather. You turn to them for advice when you notice unusual changes in your mood or physical health. For most of your nonemergency health needs, they’re the person you rely on.
People who have an existing relationship with a PCP report having better health care access and experiences.1 It makes sense: The more familiar you are with your PCP, the better they’ll be at understanding your unique medical needs.
If you already have a PCP, here are seven ways to know they’re a good match. And if you don’t yet have one, look for Optum providers near you now. You can use this article as a checklist during your search.
Sign #1: They listen to you
The best PCPs value two-way communication. That means sitting down and having a conversation with you during visits. You should feel like your doctor really listens to you and respects what you have to say.
“I like to start by saying to the patient, ‘Tell me, in your own words, what is it that’s most important to you?’” says Tara Ostrom, MD, a senior medical director at Optum Primary Care Arizona. “That way you validate why they’re there and give them space.”
If you’re being interrupted or always feel rushed, you might not have the right fit. To help make use of the limited time in an appointment, consider bringing a list of your concerns and questions with you.2
Sign #2: They ask you questions
Your PCP should be asking you specific questions to determine why you’ve come to the doctor now, Dr. Ostrom says.
Dr. Ostrom recommends that doctors ask, “What about all of this worries you the most?”
To better understand your symptoms, your doctor can ask follow-up questions. They should also listen carefully to your answers. For example, your PCP might ask if your pain is sharp or dull, or whether it wakes you up at night. Detailed questioning can help you and your doctor feel more confident in a diagnosis and the next steps. You can help your doctor by being as detailed as possible in your answers.
Sign #3: They show concern for your feelings
Good doctors try to understand what you’re going through. “Validating what you’re hearing and seeing shows connection and empathy,” Dr. Ostrom says. Empathy, the ability to show compassion and concern for others, demonstrates that your PCP cares about you as a person.
You can help your doctor by being honest about how you feel and by describing your emotions as well as your physical symptoms. That way, your PCP can get a fuller picture of how you feel.
Sign #4: They explain things in a way that makes sense to you
Health care can be complicated. And explanations can often be full of confusing medical terms. Look for a PCP who can break concepts down using plain language so that you understand what’s happening.
Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor to repeat something or tell it in a different way.3 Asking lots of questions helps guide your doctor, who wants you to understand.
Sign #5: They include you in making decisions
A good doctor-patient relationship is a partnership where you make decisions together. Your PCP should outline your options and explain the pros and cons of each of them. Then you can discuss what works best for you in your situation.
“As a physician, you should acknowledge the patient and where they’re at,” Dr. Ostrom says. As a patient, you should feel ownership in the final decision of what to do next.
When discussing next steps, “there’s no bad question,” Dr. Ostrom says. “Patients have to be comfortable enough to ask what’s on their mind. If they’re not comfortable, they’re not going to follow the treatment plan.” Repeating the options back to your doctor is a good way to make sure you understand them.
Sign #6: They make you feel comfortable talking about personal information
Let’s face it: Some of the questions doctors ask can feel very private or sensitive. These might include questions about your bathroom habits or sexual history. But if you’re not honest with your doctor, they won’t get a full picture of your health.
“Withholding information can lead to misdiagnoses,” Dr. Ostrom says. “Your doctor has to be somebody you’re comfortable with. You need someone you feel is going to listen and is nonjudgmental.”
If you’re hesitant to share personal information with your current PCP, that could be a signal that it’s time to consider switching doctors.
Sign #7: They’re available
It doesn’t matter how many college degrees your doctor has if you can’t get an appointment when you need one.
Many PCPs work in teams with other providers, so you might occasionally need to see someone else. This is especially true of last-minute appointments. But your doctor should still stay up to date on your health.
It’s a good idea to ask yourself whether their office hours are convenient for your schedule.4 Does their office staff return your phone calls? Do they offer virtual visits? Do they use email or a secure patient portal to communicate with you?
A secure patient portal is a platform where you and your doctor can exchange nonurgent messages. It’s a good way to handle communication between appointments. Doctors can also use a patient portal to share follow-up information, such as test results. “I’m a fan of the portals, because the messages are your words exactly,” Dr. Ostrom says. “It improves the accuracy of questions in between visits.”
If these descriptions line up with the relationship you have with your PCP, celebrate. You’ve likely found a good match. If they don’t resonate with you, you might want to consider finding a PCP who’s a better fit.
- JAMA Internal Medicine. Quality and experience of outpatient care in the United States for adults with or without primary care. Published January 28, 2019. Accessed May 12, 2022.
- American Academy of Family Physicians. Getting the most out of your doctor appointment. Last updated January 19, 2018. Accessed May 12, 2022.
- National Institute on Aging. How to choose a doctor you can talk to. Last updated February 1, 2020. Accessed May 12, 2022.
- MedlinePlus. Choosing a primary care provider. Last updated July 11, 2019. Accessed May 12, 2022.
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