Choosing the doctors who will care for your parent is a critical decision that determines the level and quality of care they will receive. Here are some tips for choosing the best doctor, that will meet your family's needs.
Identify Several Possible Doctors
Once you have a general sense of what you are looking for, ask friends and relatives, medical specialists, and other health professionals for the names of doctors with whom they have had good experiences. Rather than just getting a name, ask about the person's experiences. For example: say, "What do you like about Dr. Smith?" and "Does this doctor take time to answer questions?" A doctor whose name comes up often may be a strong possibility.
If you belong to a managed care plan—a health maintenance organization (HMO) or preferred provider organization (PPO)—you may be required to choose a doctor in the plan or else you may have to pay extra to see a doctor outside the network. Most managed care plans will provide information on their doctors' backgrounds and credentials. Some plans have websites with lists of participating doctors from which you can choose.
It may be helpful to develop a list of a few names you can choose from. As you find out more about the doctors on this list, you may rule out some of them. In some cases, a doctor may not be taking new patients and you may have to make another choice.
Consult Reference Sources
The Directory of Physicians in the United States and the Official American Board of Medical Specialties Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists are available at many libraries. These books don't recommend individual doctors but they do provide a list of doctors you may want to consider. MedlinePlus, a website from the National Library of Medicine, has a comprehensive list of directories which may also be helpful.
Choose a "Board Certified" Doctor
Doctors who are board certified have extra training after regular medical school. They also have passed an exam certifying their expertise in specialty areas. Examples of specialty areas are general internal medicine, family medicine, geriatrics, gynecology, and orthopedics. Board certification is one way to learn about a doctor's medical expertise; it doesn't tell you about the doctor's communication skills. There are plenty of other Internet resources too—for example, you can find doctors through the American Medical Association's website (click on "Doctor Finder"). For a list of doctors who participate in Medicare, visit http://www.medicare.gov/ (click on "Search Tools" then "Find a Doctor").
Do Some Digging
Don't forget to call your local or state medical society to check if complaints have been filed against any of the doctors you are considering.
Visit the Office
Once you have narrowed your list to two or three doctors, call their offices. The office staff is a good source of information about the doctor's education and qualifications, office policies, and payment procedures. Pay attention to the office staff—you will have to deal with them often!
You may want to set up an appointment to meet and talk with a doctor you are considering. He or she is likely to charge you for such a visit. After the appointment, ask yourself whether this doctor is a person with whom you could work well. If you are not satisfied, schedule a visit with one of your other candidates.
When learning about a doctor, consider asking questions like:
- Do you have many older patients?
- How do you feel about involving family in care decisions?
- Can I call or email you or your staff when I have questions? Do you charge for telephone or email time?
- What are your thoughts about complementary or alternative treatments?
When making a decision about which doctor to choose, you might want to ask yourself questions like:
- Did the doctor give me a chance to ask questions?
- Was the doctor really listening to me?
- Could I understand what the doctor was saying? Was I comfortable asking him or her to say it again?
Evaluate Your Needs
Qualifications and Characteristics
- Is the doctor board certified? In what field?
- Is the age, sex, race, or religion of the doctor important?
- Will language be an obstacle to communication? Is there someone in the office who speaks my language?
- Do I prefer a group practice or an individual doctor?
- Does it matter which hospital the doctor admits patients to?
- Is the location of the doctor's office important? How far am I willing to travel to see the doctor?
- What about transportation to appointments? Is there parking? What does it cost? Is the office on a bus or subway line?
- Does the building have an elevator? What about ramps for a wheelchair or walker?
- What days/hours does the doctor see patients?
- Are there times set aside for the doctor to take phone calls? Does the doctor accept emailed questions? Is there a charge for this service?
- Does the doctor ever make house calls?
- How far in advance do I have to make appointments?
- What's the process for urgent care? How do I reach the doctor in an emergency?
- Who takes care of patients after hours or when the doctor is away?
The First Visit
Once you've chosen a doctor, make your first actual health care appointment. This visit may include a medical history and a physical exam. Be sure to bring your medical records, or have them sent from your former doctor. Bring a list of your all current medicines or take the medications with you. If you haven't already met the doctor, ask for extra time during this visit to ask any questions you have about the doctor or the practice.