Choosing a Doctor
Choosing a doctor can be a difficult and worrisome task, even under the best of circumstances. The doctor-patient relationship involves something that we value greatly, our health. This relationship has always been an important one, involving trust, openness, and compassion and therefore remains one of the most difficult, important decisions we make.
A recent study indicates that more than one in eight people changed their primary doctor last year. Although this may seem an unusual or alarming statistic, it largely reflects the times and current state of health care in the United States.
People may seek a new doctor for the following reasons:
- The doctor retired or is moving or unavailable
- Quality of care
- The quality and service of the office staff
- Health plan changes by the doctor or a change in insurance by the patient
- Change of location
Whether you are choosing a doctor for the first time or changing doctors, this process can be a daunting task. You must undertake the decision with care and planning so that the outcome is satisfactory.
The best time to choose a doctor is when you don't need one. Don't wait until you or a loved one is faced with an illness or emergency to begin looking for a doctor. This only adds stress to the decision-making process and increases the chances of making a choice you are unhappy with.
Many people often seek advice from family, friends, or coworkers about the right choice for a doctor. These are certainly good places to start and are often the most reliable and readily available sources. A number of other sources can further broaden your search.
- County, state, or national medical societies: Many may have phone referral or information centers, and many have Internet information sites. One needs to remember that some of them will recommend any doctor who is a member of the society and each society has different qualifications for membership.
- Web-based searches for board certified doctors are available at the American Board of Medical Specialties or by the Bureau of Osteopathic Specialists.
- Various referral agencies can help. It is important to evaluate the role of the referral agency. Are they charging the doctor a fee to be recommended ? Are they a neutral rating agency/web site?
- Many community hospitals have "Find-a-Doctor" referral centers. These doctors usually have privileges to practice at the referring hospitals.
- Your insurance plan will have a list of participating doctors in your area.
- When seeking a specialist, the best referral source is your primary care physician.
The best choices are usually made after some research. Try writing down the requirements you have for a doctor and then order each according to how important it is to you. Then proceed to research the possibilities using the information sources available to you.
Consider your answers to these questions:
- Do I need a primary care doctor (family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN) or a specialist (such as cardiologist [heart], pulmonologist [lungs], gastroenterologist [liver and intestines], oncologist [cancer])? (Again, when seeking a specialist, the best referral source is your primary care physician.)
- Some health plans require you to see a primary care doctor before being referred to a specialist. It is usually better to start your medical treatment with a primary care physician who can then make referrals as necessary.
- Is the doctor board certified? Board certification is based on the completion of a minimum amount of training as well as the passing of a rigorous exam. In many specialties, it also assures that the doctor continues their education by passing ongoing exams or participating in medical education events.
- Which health plan or hospital is the doctor affiliated with? Is he/she a preferred provider in your health plan?
- Where is the office or hospital located? Do you want a doctor who is close to your home or work?
- Who covers for the doctor when he or she is away or after hours?
- How long are the wait times for appointments? How long does it take to get an appointment?
- What are the office hours and does the doctor allow for walk-ins? Are there evening or weekend hours?
- What is the doctor's specialty or areas of interest or expertise?
The Final Choice
Once you have narrowed the search to a handful of possibilities, the final decision is based on finding the right doctor for you. Even among doctors who are equally qualified, personality and practice style become the important aspects in selecting the right doctor.
Choose a doctor who communicates well with you, in a way you understand and feel comfortable with, and who explains your condition and treatment to your satisfaction.
Sometimes people choose a doctor because "everyone else" they know goes to him or her. This may mean that this doctor is a good doctor, but it may also mean that getting an appointment is difficult.
Advice in this regard is as follows:
- Most importantly, choose a doctor you trust and with whom you are comfortable. Consider variables such as age, gender, language, background, training, and personality.
- Don't be afraid to ask the doctor questions to make sure that he or she is able to answer your questions in a manner that suits you.
- Choose at least one doctor in your area (people sometimes travel to specialty centers for high-level care, but you will always need a local doctor to care for you in emergencies or after hours).
- All decisions are not final. If you choose a doctor and later decide that he or she is not for you, you may decide to look for a different doctor. However, it would be wise to consider why you are changing and to do so only after considerable thought. The duration of the doctor-patient relationship often influences its strength and the communication and compassion between you and your doctor.
- Trust your gut feelings. They're usually right.
- After you decide to switch your physician, inform the new office of your previous doctors name and location so medical records can be transferred and previous test results are available.
Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care
American Board of Medical Specialties. ABMS/Locating a Qualified Physician or Status of a Physician. Accessed June 16, 2004.
American Medical Association. The Doctor Finder Site. Available at http://www.ama-assn.org/aps/amahg.htm. Accessed June 16, 2004.
Hayer N. States Board of Medical Examiners. Available at http://www.docboard.org. Accessed June 16, 2004.