Searching for a physician is a little bit like shopping for your soulmate—and potentially with equally high stakes. While some doctor-patient relationships are short-lived (like the one with your obstetrician), others can span decades (like the one with your beloved primary care physician). In either case, developing a trusted relationship with your physician (or advanced practice provider, as the case may be) is critical to your health, happiness and long-term well-being.
You need someone you feel comfortable having honest conversations with, someone with expertise in the areas that meet your health needs and someone who is “in-network” for your health insurance plan.
Regardless of whether you’re seeking a provider who can treat your whole family or choosing a physician to address a particular ailment, selecting a doctor can be a daunting undertaking. Here are 7 things to consider before choosing a physician or other provider:
- Know your needs. Consider what type of doctor you want: A primary care doctor who can handle all of your healthcare needs and can care for the whole family? Or a specialist, such as a cardiologist (heart doctor), pulmonologist (lung doctor) or obstetrician/gynecologist (for women’s reproductive concerns and prenatal care)? Expecting a baby? You may prefer to have a midwife oversee your care. Maybe you’re interested in an osteopath (someone who is skilled in musculoskeletal manipulation and is distinguished by D.O., or doctor of osteopathy, credentials), or maybe you want a nurse practitioner who may be open to alternative therapies. Consider factors such as distance from home or work, accessibility and wait times. Then create a checklist with all of your desires to measure candidates against.
- Check your insurance. Some insurance plans require you to select a plan-approved provider, or they offer financial incentives if you choose an “in-network” doctor. Before you begin searching for a physician, use your insurer’s directory or search their website for doctors in your network.
- Do your research. Sure, it can be tempting to make your decision based on patient satisfaction surveys and review sites like Yelp and Angie’s list. But such tools are limited in terms of perspective (rating sites, for example, typically attract patients who have had stellar or horrible experiences rather than those who fall somewhere in the middle). Instead, ask friends, family and even other doctors for a referral, and use rating sites to find additional perspective. Make sure the physician is board-certified, meaning he/she has earned a medical degree from a qualified school, completed residency training and has passed one or more state exams. Primary care physicians may be board-certified in family or internal medicine while specialists complete residency training in a specific area of medicine and have passed a competency exam in their selected field.
- Consider technology. Many doctors today have a patient portal that offers 24-hour access to all of your medical information. Through a secured website, patients can review lab results, book and track appointments, request prescription refills, email their physicians and perform other tasks. There may also be virtual care options, like a 24-hour care hotline where you can get advice by phone or video visits or e-visits that allow you to get care without coming into a clinic or office.
- Schedule a visit. Compatibility is key to a successful doctor-patient partnership, and nothing can give you a feel for whether you’ve selected the right doctor than a face-to-face meeting. Does the doctor listen to you without interrupting? Do you feel comfortable sharing your symptoms and concerns? Does the doctor fully explain your diagnosis and answer your questions? Be sure you feel comfortable in the office environment and with the physician, nurses and staff—and make sure the doctor shares your philosophy when it comes to managing chronic health complaints.
- Call in reinforcements. Ask a trusted friend, family member or loved one to accompany you to your first appointment. Not only will they help you decide whether the physician is a right fit for you, they can also help you provide the doctor with an accurate health history—and that’s critical particularly in cases where patients suffer from a condition that affects their memory.
- Go with your gut. Like any relationship, much of its success boils down to chemistry. Choose a doctor you connect with, someone who is not only knowledgeable and experienced, but who you can trust with sensitive issues. Even the most respected physician in the world is worth passing up if his or her approach doesn’t mesh with your personality.
Questions to ask potential candidates:
Once you have identified a provider you are interested in seeing, here are a few questions you may want to ask, along with any conversation-starters that are important for you and your unique health and situation.
- What are the office hours?
- Who covers for the doctor when he/she is away?
- How long will I typically have to wait to see the doctor during a scheduled appointment?
- How long does it take to get an appointment?
- Which health plan and hospitals is the doctor affiliated with?
- What is the doctor’s philosophy? Is he/she open to alternative approaches? Does he/she have a spiritual approach to medicine?
No matter which physician you choose, don’t be afraid to switch if you later discover he/she isn’t the right fit. Developing a good relationship with your physician ensures you get the tests and treatments you need to maintain your health and well-being—and nothing is more important than that.