How to Choose a Doctor

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.