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Finding a Doctor You Can Talk To

Good communication with your doctor can keep you healthy

NIH/National Institute on Aging

In the past, the doctor typically took the lead and the patient followed.

Today, a good patient-doctor relationship is more of a partnership.

You and your doctor can work as a team, along with nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and other health care providers, to solve your medical problems and keep you healthy.

This means asking questions if the doctor’s explanations or instructions are unclear, bringing up problems even if the doctor doesn’t ask, and letting the doctor know if you have concerns about a particular treatment or change in your daily life. Taking an active role in your health care puts the responsibility for good communication on both you and your doctor.

All of this is true at any age. But when you’re older, it becomes even more important to talk often and comfortably with your doctor. That’s partly because you may have more health conditions and treatments to discuss. It’s also because your health has a big impact on other parts of your life, and that needs to be talked about, too.

Choosing a doctor you can talk with

Finding a main doctor (often called your primary doctor or primary care physician) that you feel comfortable talking to is the first step in good communication. It is also a way to ensure your good health. This doctor gets to know you and what your health is normally like. He or she can help you make medical decisions that suit your values and daily habits and can keep in touch with the other medical specialists and health care providers you may need.

If you don’t have a primary doctor or are not at ease with the one you currently see, now may be the time to find a new doctor. Whether you just moved to a new city, changed insurance providers or had a bad experience with your doctor or medical staff, it is worthwhile to spend time finding a doctor you can trust.

People sometimes hesitate to change doctors because they worry about hurting their doctor’s feelings. But doctors understand that different people have different needs. They know it is important for everyone to have a doctor with whom they are comfortable.

Primary care doctors frequently are family practitioners, internists or geriatricians. A geriatrician is a doctor who specializes in older people, but family practitioners and internists may also have a lot of experience with older patients.

The following suggestions can help you find a doctor who meets your needs:

Decide what you are looking for in a doctor

A good first step is to make a list of qualities that matter to you. Do you care if your doctor is a man or a woman? Is it important that your doctor has evening office hours, is associated with a specific hospital or medical center or speaks your language? Do you prefer a doctor who has an individual practice or one who is part of a group so you can see one of your doctor’s partners if your doctor is not available?

After you have made your list, go back over it and decide which qualities are most important and which are nice, but not essential.

Identify several possible doctors

Once you have a general sense of what you are looking for, ask friends and relatives, medical specialists and other health professionals for the names of doctors with whom they have had good experiences. Rather than just getting a name, ask about the person’s experiences. For example: say, “What do you like about Dr. Smith?” and “Does this doctor take time to answer questions?” A doctor whose name comes up often may be a strong possibility.

If you belong to a managed care plan — a health maintenance organization, known as HMO, or preferred provider organization, known as PPO — you may be required to choose a doctor in the plan or else you may have to pay extra to see a doctor outside the network. Most managed care plans will provide information on their doctors’ backgrounds and credentials. Some plans have websites with lists of participating doctors from which you can choose.

It may be helpful to develop a list of a few names you can choose from. As you find out more about the doctors on this list, you may rule out some of them. In some cases, a doctor may not be taking new patients and you may have to make another choice.

Consult reference sources

The Directory of Physicians in the United States and the Official American Board of Medical Specialties Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists are available at many libraries. These books don’t recommend individual doctors but they do provide a list of doctors you may want to consider.

Don’t forget to call your local or state medical society to check if complaints have been filed against any of the doctors you are considering.

Learn more about the doctors you are considering

Once you have narrowed your list to two or three doctors, call their offices. The office staff is a good source of information about the doctor’s education and qualifications, office policies and payment procedures. Pay attention to the office staff — you will have to deal with them often!

You may want to set up an appointment to meet and talk with a doctor you are considering. He or she is likely to charge you for such a visit. After the appointment, ask yourself whether this doctor is a person with whom you could work well. If you are not satisfied, schedule a visit with one of your other candidates.

When learning about a doctor, consider asking such questions as:

  • Do you have many older patients?
  • How do you feel about involving my family in care decisions?
  • Can I call or email you or your staff when I have questions? Do you charge for telephone or email time?
  • What are your thoughts about complementary or alternative treatments?

When making a decision about which doctor to choose, you might want to ask yourself questions like:

  • Did the doctor give me a chance to ask questions?
  • Was the doctor really listening to me?
  • Could I understand what the doctor was saying? Was I comfortable asking him or her to say it again?

The first appointment

Once you’ve chosen a doctor, make your first actual health care appointment. This visit may include a medical history and a physical exam. Be sure to bring your medical records, or have them sent from your former doctor. Bring a list of your current medicines or put the medicines in a bag and take them with you. If you haven’t already met the doctor, ask for extra time during this visit to ask any questions you have about the doctor or the practice.

Worksheet: Prepare for your doctor’s visit

Based on the NIH/National Institute on Aging publication “Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People.”

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