When to Change Your Doctor

by Gerri Willis

People spend more time buying a car or choosing furniture than they do picking a primary care physician, according to the American Institute for Preventative Medicine. Not only do consumers do little due diligence in choosing a doctor, but they are unlikely to change doctors voluntarily. Don Powell, AIPM president, says even if a doctor is no longer in a patient's network, many people are reluctant to switch. They're nervous of offending the doctor and they are reluctant to dump a physician who knows their history. But here is the new reality: As insurance companies consolidate and networks change, being forced to find a new doctor is much more likely. What’s more, as you change and age the doctor you originally chose to serve your family may not be the right fit anymore.

Choosing a new doctor isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, with some 850,000 doctors out there, it can be overwhelming to find the right match for you.

Here are the key factors to picking the best doctor for you:

  • Start your list with the doctors that are inside your insurance network. Picking a physician outside your network is a recipe for financial disaster. That’s because you will likely end up picking up all or most of the total bill for every single visit even if you are simply getting a flu shot. If you figure that the average cost per visit is $200 and the average family of four goes to the doctor’s office 16 times per year, you could be facing a hefty $3,200 tab each and every year. Much better to make the average $22 co-payment. Columbia Presbyterian ophthalmologist Dr. Pamela Gallin advises patients to pick doctors affiliated with the best hospitals in the area, otherwise, she says, you can be facing even higher costs for using a facility not associated with your insurance provider. Keep an eye on the affliations of any specialists you see as well.
  • Solicit advice from friends and family.  Often, those closest to you have experience with local doctors. Ask them the questions that are difficult to answer: Is their doctor responsive? Do you spend hours waiting to see the doc? Since the average physician interrupts his or her patients just 23 seconds into their description of their ailments, ask whether he or she is a good listener. Does the physician take questions by email? How nice is the office staff? When you’re sick and seeking care, all of these issues take on greater importance.
  • What’s his or her credentials? Credentials matter and many of them have to be periodically updated. A gynecologist, for example, has to pass a written and oral certification every six years with the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Your insurers’ website may give you basic information on the educational and professional backgrounds of their member physicians. If not, check out these: 1.) Administrators in Medicine (www.docboard.org) provides information on licensing and disciplinary actions for doctors in 18 states. 2.) American Medical Association’s DoctorFinder (https://extapps.ama-assn.org/docfinder) has comprehensive information on member doctors including their educational background and areas of specialization.
  • Check out online patient reviews. Sites like www.healthgrades.com or www.vitals.com rank doctors based on patient reviews on easy to use websites.