Fall is just around the corner, and this is the time of year when many head back to school. For children, teens and adult learners, the start of the school year marks a new beginning ― new classes, new friends and new opportunities.
This is also the time when many head to the doctor’s office. As a family physician, I perform more school physicals in late summer and early fall than at any other time of the year. These office visits ― like heading back to school ― also mark a new beginning. Immunization records are reviewed, paperwork is completed and I make sure patients are healthy and on track for the new academic year.
Back-to-school is also the perfect time of year to find a new doctor. Maybe you have just received health insurance through a new job or the Affordable Care Act. Maybe you haven’t been to a doctor in a while but are looking to get a check-up, or perhaps you are simply looking to change your physician. Whatever the reason, back-to-school is the perfect time to not only get back to the doctor but to find the doctor that is right for you and your family.
Finding the right doctor requires preparation, though, and it shouldn’t be done randomly or without thought. Think about the time and energy that goes into preparing for the start of the school year. I argue that finding the right doctor requires the same level of detail.
How have you found doctors in the past? Have you chosen a physician because their name was the first name you saw at the top of your health insurance company website? Have you searched online and found the doctor closest to your home? Maybe you’ve established with a doctor because you pass their office on the way to work. As a physician AND a patient myself I completely understand ― in fact, I’ve done many of these myself. Is this practical? Absolutely. But is this foolproof? No. Even though finding a doctor this way may complete your “to do” list, it won’t necessarily mean that you find the right physician.
Why does the “right” physician even matter, you might ask? Don’t all doctors do the same thing, perform the same needed tests, fill out paperwork the same way, etc.? Well, technically, doctors are trained similarly and, assuming competence, they should be able to provide similar services to patients. But the right doctor is not just a competent one, but one whom you and your family have a great relationship with.
The doctor-patient relationship is one of the most important relationships we will ever have ― it’s just as important as relationships with family, friends and even pets. Remember, physicians make medical treatment decisions based not only on physical exams and test results, but also on the information you give us. If you don’t have a good relationship with your physician, you may not be comfortable being open and honest. In turn, your physician might not be able to make the right diagnosis or choose the right medication for you. In short, your health can be positively or negatively affected by the quality of the relationship you have with your physician. Furthermore, don’t you deserve a physician who, in addition to being competent, is a good fit? Yes, you do. Here are some tips for finding Dr. Right:
1) Ask your neighbor
What you do when you move to a new city and need a haircut? You ask for recommendations. This is exactly how I suggest you begin your search for a new doctor ― ask friends and family for suggestions. Listen to what they like and don’t like about their doctor and ask detailed questions about not only the physician but the office and office staff.
2) Who’s your doc?
Find out if your physician is a DO or an MD. A DO is an osteopathic physician and an MD is an allopathic physician ― both DOs and MDs are fully licensed physicians who practice medicine and surgery in the U.S. Both practice all specialties (from dermatology to OBGYN to surgery) and often work side by side, but DOs have additional training in musculoskeletal medicine and often perform osteopathic manipulative therapy (“hands on” treatment for a wide range of conditions). Go to DoctorsThatDO.org and ama-assn.org to learn more about DOs and MDs.
If you are looking for a primary care doctor, it is important to understand the difference between pediatrics, family medicine and internal medicine physicians. Pediatricians generally treat children (up to age 18 or 21 in most cases), family physicians often treat all ages (from “birth to death”) and internists usually treat only adults.
Once you know this information, research whether your chosen physician is “board-certified.” This is an important designation because it indicates that the physician has expertise in the specialty in which they practice. To learn more about board certification, go to CertificationMatters.org or DoctorsThatDO.org.
3) Pick up the phone
Now it’s time to pick up the phone. Call the office and ask the front desk staff questions that are important to you. Does the physician run on time or do they tend to be late? How easy is it to get appointments? Is there is a possibility that you and your family could be scheduled with someone other than your chosen physician? Knowing these details ahead of time will help ensure there are no surprises when you get to the office for your appointment.
4) Go for a test drive
Once you have selected your physician, “test drive” your new doc by scheduling an office visit to establish care. Go through your medical history with your new physician and get to know your doctor’s style. Ask questions to get a sense of what you can expect: Will he or she be available after hours if you have a medical concern? How are medication refills handled? What is the policy for specialist referrals? Will you be able to get your doctor on the phone if you want to speak directly to them?
After your visit, take a moment to reflect on your experience. What did you like and what didn’t you like? One visit usually isn’t enough to know exactly how compatible you and your physician will be, but it will at least tell you if you want to go back.
After a few visits, ask yourself the following:
- Are you comfortable with your doctor?
- Does your doctor seem to like you? (Weird question, I know, but it’s important to feel as though your doctor actually wants to see you as patient.)
- Can you talk honestly with your doctor?
- Can you share your thoughts and concerns freely and without feeling judged?
- Does your doctor listen to you?
- Do you and your physician communicate in a productive way?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, I would suspect that you and your physician are well on your way to a long and productive relationship.
The right doctor will make you and your family feel like you are people and not charts. The right doctor will make you feel comfortable and cared for, not judged or condemned. The right doctor will put you and your family’s health first. This is the doctor that you deserve.
As you prepare for the new school year, take a moment to assess your health care. If you don’t have a physician or need to find a new one, this is the perfect time to start looking. Invest time and energy into your search for Dr. Right and you will succeed, and don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find the one. Remember, this is not simply a physician. This is your physician.
For more health information, follow Dr. Caudle on twitter/instagram/snapchat @drjencaudle, www.facebook.com/drjennifercaudle and on her website at www.jennifercaudle.com.