How To Find The Right Primary Care Doctor For You (podcast)

A primary care doctor specializes in your overall medical history

Scripps Clinic Mission Valley Internal Medicine Physician Vivian Tran, MD.

Dr. Vivian Tran, Internal Medicine, Scripps Clinic

A primary care doctor specializes in your overall medical history

Hundreds of millions of people visit their primary care doctor every year. Aside from providing routine preventive care, primary care physicians — considered the quarterbacks of medicine — are your first line of defense when you’re sick or hurt.


Developing a strong relationship with a doctor through regular visits helps them see the whole picture. They’ll know your medical history better than anyone. So, how do you find a primary care doctor who’s right for your needs?


In this episode of San Diego Heath, host Susan Taylor and guest Vivian Tran, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Mission Valley, discuss what to look for when choosing a primary care physician, such as office location and hours, languages spoken, gender, and care philosophy; what type of doctor to choose; what to do to prepare for your first visit; and how important it is to establish a relationship with your primary care doctor.


It’s fine to shop around for a doctor. The most important thing is finding someone you’re comfortable with.

Listen to the episode on choosing a primary care doctor

Listen to the episode on choosing a primary care doctor

Podcast highlights

What's the role of the primary care doctor? (0:50)

A primary care doctor is essentially a general practitioner. We're the first line of defense. We're the people that you see when you fall ill in a non-acute, non-emergent setting. We also provide preventative medicine. We do your annual physicals. We do routine visits.

What are the different types of primary care doctors? (1:09)

I practice internal medicine. My specialty is adults, 18 and over. My pediatrician colleagues focus on kids under the age of 18. There are also primary care family medicine doctors who actually take care of both kids and adults.


On the opposite side, there are also geriatricians who take care of patients ages 60 and older, and OB-GYNs who take care of women's health and help women through their pregnancies.


Usually you would see your OB-GYN and your primary care doctor. In certain circumstances, you can just see your primary care doctor and they can do your women's health as well. But some women prefer to have a separate OB-GYN and that's totally fine too.

Why is it so important to have a primary care doctor? (2:07)

Your primary care doctor is the one who knows your medical history the best. It's important to have a very strong relationship with them to facilitate your health care. They're the one who will know your medical history best, next to you of course. In order to have strong health and lasting health, it's going to be important to see your doctor and keep that relationship with them and maintain it over the years.


We recommend that everybody have a primary care doctor. We like to consider ourselves as the quarterback of medicine and the quarterback of your health essentially. Our role is not only to do routine visits and make sure you're up to date with all your screenings, but also if you need to see a specialist, we're the ones that you come back to after you've seen the specialist. We're the ones who take a look at the whole picture and really try to see what's going on and help you coordinate your care.

How important are location, office hours, gender, age and language? (4:15)

The first thing that I usually like to tell people is location is the most important. Whether you just moved to San Diego or you are living in downtown or in North County, it's important to find a doctor that's close to you. Whether it's close to your home or close to your work, it should be someone you have easy access to. You don't want to drive 45 minutes to have to see your primary care doctor, not when you're sick.


Another thing is some patients have a preference between female and male providers. Some patients have no preference and that's totally fine. The doctor's schedule is also important. You want to know: Does your doctor work five days a week? Are they 7 am to 5 pm, or do they do late hours, which Scripps is offering now? We have extended office hours pretty much from 7 am to 7 pm and different providers take different slots of those times. So, it's something to look into. If you work from 8 am to 5 pm you want to be able to see a provider who is going to see you from 5 pm to 7 pm when you are off work.


If you don't speak English as your primary language or at all, it's important to have a doctor who can speak your language if possible. That just makes for a stronger relationship in general. To have a patient be able to communicate their concerns to their doctor without the need of a translator, makes it a much stronger relationship.


As for age, it really depends. Some patients have no preference. Other patients they don't really want to deal with the age gap, the cultural barriers and generational barriers, so to speak. For some folks, that's important. For some folks, it doesn't matter.

What kind of research should I do to find the right primary care doctor? (6:45)

Generally, I say to begin with, you can always ask your friends and family. Do they have people they trust that they've been seeing for years and would they recommend them to you?


You can also check with your insurance. Sometimes they have already assigned you to a primary care provider. This is something to think about because if you go see a different doctor who you like, who's not technically your assigned primary care provider, you can stay with that doctor. You just have to call your insurance and tell them that you would like to switch to them.


Our Scripps website, scripps.org, does have the option to find a doctor. When you click on that link, you can decide whether you want to see a pediatrician or an internal medicine doctor, et cetera. When you click on the specific specialty that you want to see, you can then narrow it down by location and you can read the physician bios. Some physicians have certain interests. It's not a specialty per se, but it is more of an interest in a certain field. Say, a primary care doctor has an interest in cardiology. That doctor might be of more benefit to a patient who has an extensive cardiac history, like a lot of heart problems, and is looking for a primary care doctor. It's something to think about.


Every doctor has their own philosophy of care. It's usually listed in their bio on our Scripps webpage. But it might not be listed in others, so it might take an actual face-to-face visit to really understand a doctor's philosophy. It's something that is okay to ask them when you first meet them. It's important for patients to understand their doctors' philosophies and see if it's in line with theirs. Is it something that they're looking for to improve their care?

What are the pros and cons of family members sharing the same doctor? (9:17)

That depends. It's really up to the patient and what they want. Personally as a physician, I think that it is nice to see multiple members of the same family. It does help build a stronger relationship and it really helps me know where my patients are coming from. But, needless to say, some patients have a different philosophy from their doctors. Or it could be their spouse is seeing a female provider and they prefer a male provider. That's totally okay. In general, it's really up to the patient and what they feel comfortable with.

Should I switch to a geriatrician when I turn 50, 60, or 70? (10:04)

In general, I would say no. If you've been with the same doctor for years and they know your history and you like your doctor, I think that having someone who knows your history best is going to actually improve your care. This, as compared to switching to different doctors as you get older, who don't know your extensive medical history as well because they've just met you. You might not get as good care.


You can switch to a geriatric doctor in some cases because you may have chronic conditions that are associated with age [like] dementia and things like that. In those certain circumstances, it's a discussion that you should have with your current primary care provider and together you can come to the decision whether a geriatrician is of more benefit.

What should I bring to my first visit? (11:03)

Having your medication list is probably the most important thing. Either you can bring in your pill bottles or have an actual list of your medications and dosages because then your doctor can understand which meds you're taking, know which meds they should or should not prescribe in case there are interactions. Also having your immunization history is important so that your doctor can make sure you are up to date with all your immunizations and routine preventative screening in general.


[As for past health screenings] I would say things like colonoscopies. In terms of mammograms and pap smears, bringing the last year or two would be fine.


[As for any abnormal test results or surgeries or medical procedures] you should definitely bring it to your doctor's attention because it does play a part in how your doctor is going to care for you.


With supplements it's a little bit harder because they're not all regulated. They're not all the same across the board. Somebody might be taking a B12 supplement. Somebody else might be taking a B12 supplement, but the ingredients are actually different and the way they're made are different. So, if you are taking supplements, often times it's actually good to bring your bottles in so that we can see the back of the bottle and see exactly what's in there.

How often should I see my primary care doctor? (12:48)

When you're young and healthy, it's probably not as urgent for you to see your doctor on a yearly basis or every six months even. But I do encourage it because really that's the time that you get with your doctor to establish that relationship and they can know what's going on in your lives. They can understand you as a whole person rather than just your medical complaints.

Is it better to see a solo practitioner or a member of a medical group? (14:13)

It's up to the patient's preference and if that's something that they are concerned about. I generally recommend seeing someone who is in a practice because if your doctor falls ill, or say they're out of town, you might see one of their colleagues, and if they're in a bigger practice, there are more people who are able to continue that care.


Specialty services are really important too, and something that Scripps offers a lot of. We have a lot of different specialty services. Patients who need these specialties are able to get to them a lot easier when they're all within one network.


Say, I refer you to an orthopedic doctor. They will see you and then write their note and I'll be able to see it. So, it does make it a lot easier. It just gives us a more comprehensive picture and allows us to continue your continuity of care.