Most people never think about how to choose a doctor until they need one in a hurry. When a person is injured or suddenly becomes ill, finding a good doctor is a necessity, and there is often no time to spare.
If a person does not have a family doctor or internist, injury or sudden illness often means a visit to the emergency room or outpatient section of the nearest hospital, where staff doctors who may know little about the patient's personal medical history must treat that person symptomatically and, more often than not, on an urgent basis. This usually is not a good way to establish a lasting physician-patient relationship.
A better way to assure yourself of good medical care is to have a personal physician who is familiar with you and your family's medical history and who is available (or has associates who are available) when you need care. In this way, your health needs will be met by someone who knows you and whom you know.
The best time to choose a doctor, then, is when you don't need one. You should never wait until you have no choice about the doctor you see. How do you choose a doctor? In this article, we'll provide some basic guidelines for making an informed decision.
The Right Doctor for Your Family
Many families want a doctor who can treat each individual family member and who is also familiar with the family as a group. Doctors who specialize in family medicine are called family practitioners. Their education and training enable them not only to provide medical care but also to recognize and handle the social, emotional, and psychological factors that affect the health and well-being of patients and their families.
Whereas a physician needs to have only one year of internship (postgraduate hospital training, usually divided among several branches of medicine) before entering general practice, today's family practitioner completes a one-year internship and a two-year residency in family practice. During that time, he or she receives more intensive training in general surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, and pediatrics, among other fields.
Family practitioners care for all the members of a family, so there is usually no need for a different specialist for each individual. A family practitioner is well equipped to handle most aspects of medical care, such as uncomplicated pregnancies, immunizations, and routine physicals. A family practitioner generally can diagnose and treat all of the common ailments, as well as many of the uncommon ones. Also, a family practitioner can guide you to the right specialist when one is necessary and can help coordinate your care.
In addition to providing comprehensive medical care for all family members, today's family practitioner is as interested in maintaining your good health as in curing or treating illness. The family practitioner's overall goal is to treat each family member as an individual with physical, emotional, and social needs, as well as medical requirements.
How can you find a family practitioner who is right for your family? You can call your county or state medical society. These organizations have uniform requirements for physicians to be admitted to their membership (for example, completion of appropriate training and board certification). They can also tell you where you can find a specialist. However, these societies do not offer an opinion on the overall quality of a physician. This is something you must assess for yourself. The questions listed below will help you make this assessment.
Another valuable source is the physician referral service of your local hospital. This service will give you the names of family physicians who are on staff and are accepting new patients.
You should also ask people in your neighborhood about their doctors. They may be able to offer suggestions based on personal experience with local physicians. In addition, if you live in a city, you may find that there is a local organization that evaluates the medical profession on behalf of the consumer. Neighborhood consumer groups will often make medical referral information available to you at no charge.
What types of questions should you ask the doctor you're considering? In the next section, we will detail these.
Questions to Ask a Doctor
In the process of selecting a family physician, you should draw up a list of basic questions to ask the doctor and consider the following:
- Will the doctor treat all family members?
- Is the doctor covered by your insurance plan?
- Does the doctor provide care during pregnancy and perform deliveries?
- Does the doctor have staff privileges at a nearby accredited hospital?
- Does the doctor perform surgery? If so, what kind?
- Does the doctor encourage preventive medicine, such as routine checkups, immunizations, and follow-up tests?
- Does the doctor make emergency house calls for bedridden family members?
- Does the doctor have office hours that are convenient for your family, especially for those who work or attend school?
- What arrangement does the doctor have for a substitute when he or she is unavailable?
- What are the fees for the various services?
- Is the doctor certified by the American Board of Family Practice (or a specialty board of another area)?
The answers to these questions, along with the recommendations of friends and neighbors, will help you select the right doctor for you and your family.