Finding a new doctor: A guide for older adults

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Finding a new doctor: A guide for older adults

Follow these six steps to finding a new doctor.

Your kids want you to move close to them. Or your doctor has reached retirement age. Or maybe you've got a new health insurance plan. Whatever the reason, after all these years with the same family doctor, you might discover that you have to find a new physician.

It might seem overwhelming at first — especially if you've come to trust your doctor and he or she understands you and your health history. Follow these steps and give yourself time to search for a new doctor who's best for you.

Step 1: Make a list of what you expect from your new doctor

Think about what you like about your current doctor. Does he or she really seem to care when you talk about your concerns? Does your doctor explain things clearly in language you can understand? Is your doctor's office conveniently located? Chances are you'll want to have these same things with your new doctor.

Make a list of what you're looking for and use it to evaluate new doctors. You'll likely want a doctor who:

  • Accepts your health insurance. Depending on your health insurance plan, you might be restricted to seeing only certain doctors in your area. If you see a doctor outside your plan, you may end up paying more. Can you afford to do that?
  • Listens to your concerns. You probably want a doctor who will answer your questions and explain things clearly.
  • Speaks your language. Difficulty understanding your doctor because of a language barrier could make it less likely that you'll understand and follow through with your doctor's instructions.
  • Has an office in a convenient location. You need to be able to get to your appointments with minimal stress. Is the office easy to find? Is parking available on the premises? If you take the bus or subway, is a stop located nearby?

Other aspects might be important to you as well, including which hospital the doctor uses and whether or not the doctor works in a group practice with several other doctors.

Step 2: Decide which type of doctor you want

Deciding which type of doctor is best for you is another way you can narrow your choices. Types of doctors you might consider include:

  • General practitioners. These doctors treat a wide variety of health problems. They don't specialize in one area of medicine.
  • Family practitioners. These doctors provide care for all ages. Your family might have used a family practitioner when your children were young. They're a popular choice if you would like one doctor to become familiar with the health history of your entire family.
  • General internists. Internists provide care for adults only, covering a wide spectrum of disorders.
  • Specialists. Specialists are internists with additional training in a certain area. For example, a cardiologist is specially trained to treat heart problems.

General practitioners, family practitioners and general internists provide what's called primary care. That is, they treat diseases and conditions but also advise you on how to prevent health problems. While some specialists also provide primary care, many prefer not to practice general medicine.

If, for example, you know you have heart problems and you want to see a cardiologist, first find a doctor who can provide your primary care. He or she can then refer you to a specialist.

Depending on your health insurance plan, you may be required to find a primary care doctor first. Other plans might let you choose a specialist without first seeing a primary care doctor.

Step 3: Ask around for advice

Talk to friends and family about doctors they recommend. Perhaps your current doctor can even make some recommendations. Nurses in your doctor's office or at your local hospital might be able to offer recommendations, since they often work with several doctors. You might also consult:

  • A local hospital you respect. If you've heard that a particular clinic or hospital in your town is good, you might want to call that hospital's referral service and ask for more information about the doctors available to see you.
  • Local, county or state medical societies. Networks of doctors in your area might have referral services to assist you with your search. Check your local telephone directory.
  • Medical organizations. The American Medical Association (AMA) is a national organization that allows you to search listings by name or specialty. Some organizations have local chapters that can supply you with the names of specialists in your area. Medicare operates an online directory of doctors on its Web site. You can search by location and the doctor's specialty.

You might also be interested in checking your new doctor's credentials online. Administrators in Medicine, the national organization of state medical and osteopathic board executive directors, lists state Web sites that give such information, though not all states list doctors' credentials online. Depending on the information available from your state, you might be able to find out if the doctor is currently licensed to practice medicine and whether or not any disciplinary action has been taken against the doctor.

Step 4: Call your selected doctors' offices

Once you've made your list of preferences and decided what type of doctor you'd like, call doctors' offices in your area and ask questions. You may want to ask about:

  • Whether the doctor accepts your health insurance
  • The doctor's education and training
  • How long the wait is for an appointment
  • Whether the office will process medical claims for you or whether you'll need to do that yourself
  • The doctor's experience with any chronic health conditions you might have
  • Who will see you or answer your questions when the doctor is unavailable
  • Whether the doctor works with other health care professionals, such as nurse practitioners and physician's assistants, and how often you'll see these professionals rather than the doctor

Ask any other questions that will help you narrow your choice of doctors. Responses to your questions might also give you an idea of how friendly or stressed out the office staff members are.

Step 5: Make an appointment to talk to the doctor

You might have gotten enough information over the phone to make your decision. Or you might want to make an appointment to interview the doctor to see how well you communicate with each other. Here you can ask more about the doctor's experience and about office policies. Keep in mind that the doctor might charge you for his or her time, and your health insurance may not pay for the appointment.

Step 6: Transfer your medical information

Once you've selected a new doctor, talk with your current doctor about getting your medical records in order. With your permission, your current doctor can send your files to your new doctor. You might also ask for copies of your medical records for your own reference. Your current doctor may also be willing to fill your new doctor in on your chronic health problems. But don't wait until the last minute. Give your current doctor enough time to prepare your files to ensure a smooth transition to your new doctor.

Finding a new doctor can seem overwhelming. But following a series of simple steps can make finding a new doctor much easier — and offer a greater level of satisfaction when you turn to your new doctor for medical advice in the future.

Last Updated: 08/24/2006
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