Finding a primary care doctor or a specialist can be daunting! Even for people who are doctors, it can be hit-or-miss. As the patient, I have realized being prepared can make the difference between a good experience and one that is just okay. As the doctor, I love it when patients come ready with questions and medical records in hand. It is a win-win for both sides. Here is what I recommend:
Do your homework finding a doctor, but then go with your gut.
If you are looking for a primary care doctor, ask friends and family whom they recommend. Check each doctors’ background and make sure their experience fits your needs. If you are looking for a specialist, your primary care doctor is a great first person to ask. She knows your story and can match you with an appropriate specialist. If you need a specific kind of procedure or surgery, ask for a doctor who does that kind of work often.
Then, when you meet a doctor in person, listen to your gut. The doctor I probably have seen the most in the past 20 years is my obstetrician. My sister-in-law recommended him to me, and after doing a little research of my own, it was clear he had an excellent reputation. Meeting him in person, I liked him right away – he was calm and reassuring, and he was able to answer my many questions as a young doctor mom without getting flustered, impatient or second-guessing himself.
Consider the health care system your doctor works in.
If you have various medical issues that require specialists, consider choosing doctors that work in the same health system. It can really help with communication if they use the same computer systems for their notes, lab results, and imaging tests. They are also more likely to know each other personally which can help if they need to discuss an issue of yours over the phone.
I knew my obstetrician delivered babies at a hospital that was close to me and had exceptional resources for complicated pregnancies. This turned out to be useful because my pregnancies were high risk, and I was at the hospital for monitoring every other day for some time. I felt comfortable with the specialists that he referred me too. And on my visits to see him, he had easy access to their notes to review with me.
If the new doctor you want is not available immediately, it is okay to see someone else.
When you find that new doctor you want to go to, it can be frustrating to hear the first available appointment is months away. Do not despair, go ahead and make the appointment. In the meantime if you have a medical concern you want addressed sooner, you may be able to see another doctor or a physician assistant (PA) or a nurse practitioner (NP) in that practice much sooner. Take that earlier appointment also. You will get “in” the practice without having to wait for months for that “new patient” wellness visit with the doctor you want. The PA and NP can consult with a physician within the group if needed. Another bonus, now you know a second clinician in the practice whom you can make appointments with if you have problems in the future.
Occasionally, I meet people who are not connected with a specific doctor, but they do have a favorite urgent care clinic. Others have had positive experiences with telemedicine. I am not surprised. For the healthy person, these are decent options. Maybe you just need an occasional check in with a primary care doctor to make sure all your health maintenance issues are cared for on time.
Be prepared for the doctor’s visit.
When you do find the doctor and make the appointment, you still have a little work to do. Whether it is for a bad cold or a new patient wellness visit, being prepared will help the conversation go more smoothly.
If you have a specific complaint, think through what you are experiencing. The doctor will ask you to describe the symptoms including how long you have had them, and what actions or circumstances seem to make the symptoms better or worse. Details matter, it is so helpful when patients know the names and doses of the over the counter and prescription drugs they have tried.
If this is a general well visit, think about what the most important questions you would like answered. Write these down so you can stay focused. Unfortunately, the time can fly during an office visit, so you and the doctor may only get to the first few on your list. As a doctor, I can tell you, we want to know what most concerns you so that we can be sure to take time and talk with you about it.
Take documentation about your medical and medication history.
Come prepared for every visit with information about your general medical history and your surgical history. If you have copies of results from past lab and radiology tests keeps those in a notebook together. Records of past x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs are valuable. The radiologist can compare them with tests now to look for changes including worsening disease.
When they ask for your medication list, to save time and ensure accuracy, give them a written list of all your medicines. Include over-the-counter herbal supplements and vitamins, as well – sometimes those can cause side effects your doctor needs to know to look for. It is helpful to keep a list of the medicines you have taken that did not work as well. That way a new doctor does not try to use them again. I have migraines and many of the meds I have taken over the years have names that rhyme. There is no way I could keep them straight without writing it all down. It is the same for many high blood pressure and diabetes medications.
Talk about follow up.
Towards the end of your visit, your doctor will probably summarize her plan for you and ask you if you have any questions. Be sure to say back to them what you understand is happening to make sure both of you are on the same page. Write down the plan. Ideally, you should feel like you have a few clear steps to take care of your health before the next visit.
Be sure to ask how to reach your doctor between visits. It could be speaking with a nurse by phone or email. Find out what kind of problems you have that she could help you with quickly over the phone, rather than you waiting to come in for a visit.
Of course, this post is by no means comprehensive – navigating the health care system isn’t always as simple as 1-2-3, but following these key points can go a long way to make your doctor’s visit more successful.