It’s a big step – choosing the person you’re going to trust with your health. Sometimes, you get to stay with the same family doctor you’ve known since you were a kid. Sometimes, though, life happens. Maybe it’s a move to a new place, or a change of insurance. Maybe you just don’t click with your current doctor. Whatever the reason, building a new doctor-patient relationship takes time and commitment, and it’s worth asking yourself what you’re looking for before you start to make sure you find a good match.
Question #1: Are you ready for commitment?
YES! I want my doctor to know my pet’s name and notice when I cut my hair.
Great! You’ll want to look for a primary care doctor. This is the doctor you’ll see regularly for your preventive care, whenever you get sick, and to manage any ongoing conditions. A primary care doc is an awesome resource because they get to know you and your health and can recognize patterns that might otherwise be missed.
If you need to see a specialist regularly, then sometimes they can serve as your primary care doctor. Some women prefer to use their gynecologist as their primary care doc, for example, and diabetics will need to have an endocrinologist on speed dial.
Follow-up Question: What kind of primary care doctor do you need?
- Family Practitioners or General Practitioners treat patients of all ages, from babies to the elderly.
- Internists, or Internal Medicine doctors, only treat adults and focus on preventive care and disease management.
- Geriatricians treat older people and the elderly.
- Pediatricians treat kids, usually up to age 18.
NO, I want to get fixed and get out, like a ninja.
It’s worth finding a primary care doctor anyway, especially if your insurance requires you to get a referral before seeing a specialist. If that’s not a worry, you can try a specialist relevant to your specific condition, e.g. a cardiologist for angina or a neurologist for headaches. Or, if you go to a practice that has nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, they can help you with preventive and wellness care, and you may be able to see them faster than the doctor.
Question #2: Do you want a D.O., or maybe an M.D. How about an N.P.?
Both doctors of medicine (M.D.) and doctors of osteopathy (D.O.) are fully trained and licensed physicians. Their education and certification are very similar. The main difference lies in the treatment philosophy: D.O.’s may take a more holistic approach and focus on helping the body heal itself, rather than healing the body with drugs or procedures.
Nurse practitioners (N.P.) are also licensed clinical practitioners who can diagnose and treat conditions, prescribe medications, and manage patient wellness.
M.D. for me! A doctor of medicine (M.D.) is trained in a conventional, or allopathic, medical school. Allopathic medicine treats symptoms and diseases with medications, radiation, or surgery, and is what people usually mean when they say “Western medicine.”
I’ll go D.O.! A doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) trains at an osteopathic medical school emphasizing a whole-person approach to caring for patients. They are specially trained in the musculoskeletal system and often use manual medicine techniques (like therapeutic massage or spinal manipulation) as well as traditional medicine.
I’ll see an N.P.! Nurse practitioners tend to emphasize disease prevention and health management as well as treating symptoms. All N.P.’s can diagnose, treat, and prescribe medicine, but the state you live in determines whether they need a doctor’s supervision to do so. Many states allow N.P.’s to practice independently. Not sure if your state is one of them? Check this handy map!
Question #3: Do you know somebody who knows somebody?
YES! My mom/friend/guy on the bus recommended…
Recommendations are great, but be sure to ask follow-up questions. Maybe your mom thinks her doctor hung the moon because he has an authoritative manner she finds comforting – but if you’re an active, inquisitive participant in your healthcare, that might drive you crazy. Ask questions to find out more about the doctor’s personality – and if it will mesh with yours. Then arrange to meet the top candidates, to see if your personalities really match in person!
NO, I’m a blank slate.
You’re not out of luck! It’s good advice for everyone to arrange a call or a brief visit with a prospective doctor. When it comes to gauging personality, there’s just nothing better than sitting down and talking to a doctor face to face.
Need help narrowing down the field? Learn about researching provider quality here.
BONUS POINTS: If you call to set up a meet and greet with your doctor, you get to audition their office staff, too. It’s a quick and easy way to find out if the staff are pleasant and helpful, or if they make you feel like you’re an inconvenience. Remember, you have to deal with the front desk and nurses every doctor visit, so make sure you like the staff as well as the doctor.
Question #4: Does your insurance limit your provider network?
Yep, I have to stay in-network.
Don’t worry, odds are good that your insurance won’t keep around any doctor who gets a lot of patient complaints. In fact, give your insurance a call and see if they have any information on a prospective doctor – they may have information or patient feedback that they can’t release publicly, but might be able to tell members.
Nope, I’m free a free agent!
You don’t have a network to narrow down your choices, but that just means you can choose whichever doctor is really the best fit for you. Even better, you can shop around to get the best local price on wellness visits or whatever procedure you need! If you find a doctor you love AND get a great deal, that’s double the win!
Last Question: Are you shy about asking your doctor questions?
Nope! I want to know everything I can before I decide.
Good for you! You should be an active, involved part of your own health. Here are a couple of questions to ask if you’re talking to a prospective new doctor:
- How much experience do you have with patients like me?
- (For Specialists) How many of your patients are able to regain a normal quality of life?
- How do you coordinate care with any other doctors or providers I might need to see?
- If I have ideas or suggestions about my care, are you open to that?
- Do you tend to run on schedule?
Yes, I’m shy and I don’t want to be a bother.
Get over it! This is your health we’re talking about. See questions above.
Hopefully this will give you a good starting point for your quest to find your perfectly matched doctor. Here’s wishing you good health and good hunting!