Updated November 25, 2014.
Whether you need to make a change in your primary care doctor, or if you find you need a specialist to take care of specific symptoms, you'll want to follow these guidelines to choose the right doctor for your medical care.
- Assess Your Doctor / Practitioner Needs
Are you in need of a new primary care doctor? If so, it's most important to find one you can trust, with whom you can communicate well and establish a long-time relationship.
A specialist requires a different sort of expertise. You'll still need to communicate well, but depending on the nature of your health problem, bedside manner and that need for a long-term relationship may be less important. There are additional considerations for finding the right specialist, too.
Sometimes the best doctor for you isn't a doctor at all. Nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA) are considered "physician-extenders." There are also naturopaths and other practitioners of alternative and complementary medicine (CAM) who may be able to help you.
- Find a Respectful Communicator
Regardless of the type of practitioner you need, you'll want to be sure you can communicate effectively, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Many patients complain that they can't understand their doctors' use of "medspeak", or that they don't feel as if their providers listen to them, or give them enough time.
Sometimes those problems are due to a disregard for the needs of the patient. Other times there are good explanations. Respectful communication requires understanding on the parts of both doctors and patients to get beyond those hurdles.
- Find a Practitioner Who Works with Your Insurance
This step gets more difficult as time goes on. The nature of health insurance means relationships between insurers and practitioners change over time. Doctors who accepted insurance from Company A this year, may work only with Company B next year. Put the other way, if you have insurance through Company A, you'll need to visit only those doctors who accept Company A's insurance, or you'll have to pay for his services separately.
- Make Sure Dr. Right is the Right Type of Specialist
Patients are surprised to learn that seeing the wrong type of specialist, someone who focuses on only one body system, can stand in the way of accurate diagnosing and therefore, correct treatment. Work closely with your primary care physician to be sure you're being referred to the right type of specialty for your health problem.
- Dr. Right's Credentials are Important
Where did your doctor go to medical school? Did he specialize in the medical service you need? Where did he complete his fellowship program? Is she board certified? Has she completed continuing education coursework? Is he licensed in your state? Does he stay current with publications and research in his field of specialty? Is she affiliated with any organizations that speak to her area of medicine?
Doing a background check into your doctor's credentials is important to be sure they are appropriate and current. Here's a good method for researching your doctor's credentials.
- Dr. Right's Track Record is Important
The amount and level of experience your new doctor has can be vitally important, especially if you have a difficult to diagnose medical problem, or one that requires a difficult treatment. You'll also want to know that the doctor has a successful and clean record.
Like doing a background check on your doctors' schooling and certification, you'll want to research your doctor's track record to be sure your doctor has a clean record, free of malpractice or other problems.
- Are You Interested in Alternative or Complementary Medicine?
If you take nutritional supplements, want to try meditation or acupuncture, or even rely on your spirituality for some of your treatment decisions, you'll need a practitioner who understands and supports your choices. You'll need to ask this question directly of the physician you are considering, or you can check in with support groups and other patients to learn about doctors in your area who practice integrative medicine.
- Hospital Affiliation May Be a Consideration
If you think you may need to be hospitalized at some point now, or in the future, and you have a strong preference for one hospital (or a disdain for a certain hospital), you'll want to keep those choices in mind when you search for Dr. Right. Doctors will affiliate with one or more hospitals in their area of service. You'll want to find out which doctors are affiliated with your choice of hospitals.
As healthcare reform gains ground, more and more doctors are limiting their affiliations. If you know hospitalization is in your future, you may even want to choose your hospital first - and then choose your doctor.
Some Further Considerations
Your doctor's location may be important to you, especially if good transportation is difficult, or if you live in a more rural area.
You may be more comfortable choosing a doctor of one gender or the other for no other reason than you are just more comfortable. This choice actually addresses your need to communicate respectfully. Keep in mind, however, that excellence in medical care knows no gender.
Consider a doctor's age. Some doctor relationships will last the rest of your life, as with a primary care doctor or one you see for a chronic disease. Consider choosing a doctor younger than you who will, presumably, outlive you.
Just like choosing gender, you may consider a doctor's native language or culture in your choice. When it comes to something as personal as medical care, you need to be able to communicate well, and language barriers, in particular, can get in the way. Culture can also affect bedside manner and sometimes is not translated as it is intended.
It is important to remember that neither language nor culture will be likely to affect the ability of the doctor to take care of you; rather, they may affect your ability to communicate effectively with each other. As with gender, it's important to acknowledge that excellent doctors speak every language and come from all cultures.
Finally, doctors' practices aren't comprised of doctors alone. They are surrounded by others who help them deliver the care you need. From receptionists to billing specialists, to nurses and nurse practitioners or physician assistants, your experience with one doctor will actually be a cumulative experience with the entire team.
When it comes time to choosing the right doctor for you, you'll need to account for the entire team that will deliver your care. The doctor leads that team, so your assessment of him or her will be most important. But you can get clues to the doctor's ability to care for you based on your experience with others who work for him or her. Use that information to help you make your choice, too.