When most of us need a specialist doctor, we’ll either take a referral from our primary care physician or ask friends, relatives or our social networks for recommendations. But there may be better ways to be sure you’re getting the right fit for your health needs and preferences.
Dr. Val Jones, a physiatrist and medical director of admissions at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane, Washington, offers a list of steps for finding the best doctor for your situation, and her logical approach breaks this potentially confusing process down into simple steps.
What Kind of Specialist Do You Need?
The first step is to figure out which kind of doctor you need. But doing so could take some effort, as you need to figure out which specialty is best suited for treating your specific set of symptoms.
The American Board of Medical Specialties, the largest physician-led specialty certification organization in the United States, works in collaboration with 24 medical specialty boards to certify doctors in 39 specialties and 86 subspecialties. The ABMS reports that “more than 880,000 physicians have met the rigorous certification standards established by the ABMS Member Boards. On average, more than 40,000 new specialty and subspecialty certificates are issued each year.” Fields of specialty include anesthesiology, colon and rectal surgery, dermatology, genetics and genomics, pathology, urology, nuclear medicine and a wide variety of other areas of focus.
So there are a lot of doctors out there who may be able to help you, but it’s important to narrow down your search to ones who are best suited to treat your specific symptoms. Jones points out that many different specialists may treat the same symptoms, so you should consider the underlying cause for the problem. With a symptom like back pain, for example, she notes that primary care physicians, orthopedists, neurosurgeons, rheumatologists and several other specialists can treat this issue, depending on what’s causing it. If you don’t know the source of the pain or symptom, it’s probably best to start your search with a visit to a primary care physician to get a better sense of the underlying cause.
Do Your Homework
Once you know what kind of specialist you need, by all means, ask friends and family for recommendations and ask for specifics about what they liked or disliked about specialists they’ve seen. But if you don’t have anyone local to ask, you can do some online research to help make the selection easier.
The first stop should probably be your health insurance company to find out who’s in network. Maureen Sullivan, chief strategy and innovation officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a national federation of 36 independent, community-based and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance companies, says “we know that personal references from people in your [social] network tend to be the way a number of people weigh decisions, but I think checking with your insurer on network coverage and the types of costs and other standard measures of quality like our ‘Blue Distinction’ are invaluable complements to that kind of informal network that most individuals use.” She says the “Blue Distinction Plus” rating the company uses indicates quality and cost savings at specialty centers, and these designations are something to look for when considering “common procedures like knee and hip replacement,” and cardiac and maternity care.
Sullivan also recommends finding out whether you’ll incur out-of-pocket costs for seeing a specialist. She points to cost-estimating tools currently offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and some of their other affiliates as enabling “individuals to look at what their out-of-pocket costs might be, based on the reimbursement the insurers have negotiated. For primary care, that may be less top of mind, but that’s definitely important as you look at specialist care.” If you’re not a BCBS affiliate member, check with your insurer about whether such cost transparency information is available in your network.
When you’ve narrowed the list down to board-certified, in-network providers, it’s time to start digging into who these doctors are as people and professionals. Consider your own preferences about gender, bedside manner and treatment philosophy, as well as the doctor’s educational background, reputation, certification-status and hospital affiliations. There’s a lot to consider, so read as much as you can about these doctors you’re considering.
When you’ve whittled the list down to just a couple of choices, it’s time to make an appointment with the frontrunner. Jones recommends assessing how the office staff treat you and whether you have to wait a long time to get an appointment. Some specialists are in such high demand, you might need to wait weeks or months for an appointment. Consider whether this is a constraint you’re willing to accept on your care.
When you meet with the doctor you’ve selected, it’s best to go into your first appointment armed with a list of questions as well as your own medical history and list of current medications. Ask as many questions as you have, and consider how the doctor receives you. If she doesn’t seem to be listening or taking your concerns seriously, this might not be the fit for you, and it may be worth trying to find another doctor.
Not a Fit? Keep Searching!
“The truth is, in the end it’s a crap shoot,” Jones says. In her own experience, she says she’s used this methodical approach to selecting a specialist, which usually works well but has on occasion ended up with a poor fit. “The best-intended referrals to the doctors with the best credentials are still not a guarantee that they’ll be a good doctor for you.” This incompatibility can be because of “personality or they’re distracted because they’re overworked and they just can’t give you the attention you need. Or they miss a detail in what you’re telling them and the whole case falls apart.” She also points out that even great doctors sometimes have off days, and there’s no shame in finding someone else if you’re just not comfortable with the first doctor you find.
“I want people out there to know, if you find a good doctor, you need to hold on to them,” Jones says. “If you get referred to someone who ends up not being a great doctor for you, just fire them as quickly as possible and move on. Don’t feel badly because it happens to the best of us.”
7 Steps to Finding the Right Specialist
- Determine what kind of doctor you need. Are you looking for a pediatrician? An oncologist? A pediatric oncologist? Find out which specialist treats the issue you’re dealing with and compile a list.
- Determine which doctors are in your area. Visiting your health insurance company’s doctor directory is a good way to find doctors local to you who are also in network. It may also offer important information about cost.
- Determine your preferences. Do you want a doctor who’s affiliated with the same hospital as another doctor you see? Do you need a doctor who speaks a foreign language? Do you have a gender preference?
- Research the doctors’ backgrounds. Once you’ve narrowed the list down, assess the doctors’ credentials. Are they board certified? Read their bios online and check out whether they have a social media presence – you can learn a lot about a doctor’s style by reading what he or she writes.
- Make an appointment. Score the doctor and the office staff on courtesy, helpfulness and how long you had to wait to get the appointment.
- Arrive prepared for the appointment. Take some time before the visit to write down all the questions you have, and bring a list of all medications you’re taking, your medical history and insurance information. Ask lots of questions and assess how the doctor responds to your concerns. Did the doctor listen to you? Did he answer your questions thoroughly? Did she make you feel comfortable?
- Get a second opinion. If you have any reservations, see another doctor. As noted, there are many specialists out there. If you don’t find a good fit on the first try, keep searching.
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