Clarified on 3/21/08: An earlier version of this article referred to a minute clinic. The term was not intended to be a reference to the MinuteClinic brand, but was used generically for an urgent-care clinic.
When I first looked on my insurer's website and found that I had 500-plus primary-care doctors to choose from, I thought: Eureka!
But a few phone calls were enough to change that optimism to frustration. Even though I was willing to travel 5 miles from U.S. News's headquarters in Georgetown, finding a doctor's office that was convenient, took insurance, and had an appointment in the next week or two turned out to be no easy task.
The District of Columbia is blessed with teaching hospitals. My first thought was that those would offer the best access, since they have big clinics with lots of docs, including medical residents who can do the scut work for the attendings. But no. I called the number listed in the Aetna guide for Georgetown University Medical Center, and a woman answered: "Special care nursery." What? "What's your insurance?" she asked. "If it's Aetna, they gave you the wrong number." After several more calls, I reached the general internal medicine clinic, only to find that it wouldn't be booking new appointments for a month. The receptionist said: "You may want to contact Aetna to see where the nearest urgent care is, and see what they can do for you."
Then I called George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, which is also affiliated with a teaching hospital. "It's been a while since doctors have been seeing new patients here," the receptionist there said. "It may be another six months to a year until they do. A lot of the insurance companies have not taken our name off the list."
I left messages with several smaller practices, which never called me back. One of those was the Whitman Walker Clinic for AIDS patients, which I figured had better things to do than tend to someone whose most serious health problem was allergies. A guy at an urgent-care clinic said its staff would be happy to see me, but the place had such bad reviews on Yelp, the online rating site, that I crossed it off the list.
Washington Hospital Center, another big hospital in town, said its clinic wouldn't have anything available for two months.
I finally struck pay dirt with Howard University Physicians, which is affiliated with a school that probably graduates more African-American physicians and Ph.D.'s than any in the nation. The first number listed in the guide turned out to be for the cardiology department, but the kind woman there went ahead and checked the primary-care schedule for me. Tuesday at 2, just one week away! But Howard is all the way across the city, and I knew the odds of me making the trek more than once were slim.
Community of Hope Health Services in Columbia Heights, which serves the homeless and low-income patients, said sorry, it doesn't take Aetna.
Calls to popular group practices, the kind your friends tell you about, made it clear that their doctors were either not seeing new patients or not taking my insurance.
But I was surprised to find that several small private practices with just one or two doctors a short walk from my office could see me: one in a week and another 10 days out. My conclusion, after five hours of phone calls: It takes work to find a primary-care doctor these days, and the odds of getting in to see someone quickly are slim. A good idea, I thought, would be to make an appointment and go in to see a doctor for some minor ailment as soon as possible in order to be in that practice when the flu strikes. Otherwise, it's off to the emergency department, which is no place to be getting primary care.