Ages & Stages 0-5: Finding Dr. Right

Finding the right doctor for your family is one of the most difficult decisions you face as a parent. While many must make the choice prior to the birth of a first child, others are forced into the doctor market by various factors: a move to a new community, the retirement of a family doctor, a health plan change or a dissatisfaction with the current arrangements. Whatever the reason, the task is more difficult than a “walk” through the yellow pages.

Who’s Who?
What are your choices? There are many health-care professionals who can meet the changing needs of your family, including:
• Family Physicians — These doctors treat every member of your family. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a family practitioner “learns to handle a very broad range of health problems rather than focusing on a more narrow aspect of health care.”

• Pediatricians — These physicians treat just the children in your family. However, they are generally well-versed in childhood problems. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “pediatricians are trained to manage and prevent health problems in infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.”
Which choice is right for you? That depends upon your family, your current health-care professionals and your family’s health.

Determine Your Needs
To find the best fit for your family, you need to consider the following:
• What kind of service is covered by your medical plan? Depending upon the provider, your choices may be limited. Most plans, either major medical or health maintenance organizations, usually cover the services of family physicians and pediatricians.

• What is the status of your family’s health? If you have a child with chronic medical problems, you might wish to choose a pediatrician who is more apt to be familiar with current medical research on children’s health issues. If you are looking for well care, a family practitioner would probably meet your needs.

Dr. Who?
Once you’ve decided what kind of physician, or physicians best meet the needs of your family, it is time to find Dr. Right.

Consider the following:
• What kind of practice are you looking for? Some practices are comprised of one doctor who sees all patients. Others consist of those involving a number of practitioners. Physicians in some multi-doctor practices see only their own patients. In others, doctors see patients on a rotating, or appointment-available basis. Do you want a group practice with many different physicians, or a small practice with just one or two? Do you want to see only your “primary physician,” or are you comfortable seeing different doctors on each visit?

Both types of practices have their advantages. A small practice gives you more direct contact with your doctor. A larger practice allows you to take advantage of the varying areas of expertise among member physicians. Larger practices also tend to offer more services.

• What kinds of services are you looking for? Do you need a nurse line, or other, easy access to fast answers? What about office hours? Do you want to be able to make appointments in the evening or on the weekend? What about emergency care? An in-office lab?

• How far from home is the office? While some families are willing to drive great distances in order to see a doctor they value, it is important to consider emergencies, too. Does your doctor practice at your local hospital? If not, how far away is the closest hospital at which she has privileges?

The Final Cut

• Ask for recommendations. After you have decided your requirements, ask friends, relatives and co-workers for referrals. Who are the physicians they recommend? Are all of their questions answered by the staff? How does the doctor interact with the patients? How are telephone calls handled? What about insurance? Is it handled appropriately? How are emergencies handled? What is the typical waiting-room stay? Is there anything about the doctor or the staff that your friend doesn’t like?

• Use local referral services. Such services, usually sponsored by a local hospital or non-profit agency, can do some of the leg work for you. They can help you find a fit between your needs and service providers.

• Meet the office staff. Ask the same kind of questions you asked those recommending the doctor. Discuss any concerns you might have. Ask about billing and other terms and conditions of treatment.

• Meet the doctor. Ask about his or her education and training. Does he have a sub-specialty? Is she board certified? In which hospitals does he practice? Ask about any medical concerns you might have.

• Consider how the doctor interacts with you. Do you like her approach to your questions? Is he talking to you and not at you? Do you like her? Would you trust your child’s life in his hands?
Finally, once you have made a decision, remember it is not irrevocable. Consider how the doctor interacts with each member of your family. If you become dissatisfied, you can always start looking for another Dr. Right.

Lynn Dean is a freelance writer and mother of three.