How to Find a Doctor Who Gets You (and Why It Matters)
Working with a great physician is crucial for keeping your diabetes under control. Here’s how to find your match.
Treating a chronic disease like diabetes can sound completely overwhelming, especially if you’ve received a recent diagnosis. But working closely with the right doctor can help you keep the condition under control. “It is important to find a doctor who will partner with you,” says Tamara Oser, M.D., an associate professor of Family Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, CO. “This includes not only working to provide excellent diabetes care, but also working with you to achieve your specific diabetes goals.” Here’s what you need to know.
Know that the right doctor—and course of treatment—depends on what type of diabetes you have, and how severe it is.
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high blood sugar levels over a prolonged period, typically related to insulin—a hormone that regulates those levels. People with type 1 diabetes have a pancreas that doesn’t produce enough insulin. People with type 2 diabetes, which is much more common, don’t respond well to the insulin that their body produces.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, “Hispanic adults are 1.7 times more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.” An estimated 17% of Hispanic/Latinx Americans have type 2 diabetes, compared to 8% of white Americans.
“Primary care physicians and endocrinologists treat people with diabetes,” says Dr. Oser. “Primary care physicians include those trained in the specialties of family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. Endocrinologists complete subspecialty training in endocrinology, which is specific to the hormones and hormonal systems of the body.”
Oser says that the majority of people with type 2 diabetes are treated by primary care physicians, compared with half of those with type 1 diabetes (the other half are treated by endocrinologists). Your primary care physician will let you know if they recommend endocrinology treatment.
See what options are covered by your insurance provider.
When selecting a physician, you’ll want to make sure the doctor is covered under your insurance plan, or that you have access to out-of-network coverage. Use your insurance provider’s website to search for local physicians covered under your plan. You can check out online reviews to see what patients are saying, or even ask local friends and family if they have any recommendations.
You should also consider the provider’s location. Are they reasonably close to your home or workplace, or is their office prohibitively far away? Is their office open during hours that would work with your schedule? How often you’ll need to have appointments will vary depending on your treatment plan, but you may have to attend appointments every three months, six months, or annually.
Make an initial appointment—and ask a ton of questions.
At a diabetes appointment, generally speaking, a doctor will test your blood sugar levels, take your vitals, review any medications, and make a plan for you to manage (or continue to manage) the condition.
“I always tell patients that, in a lot of ways, they're the customer and they're there to get their questions answered,” says Michelle Ogunwole, M.D., a general internal medicine research fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD. “Our job is to answer them. So, I think a lot of times, if you're not understanding what doctors are saying, the burden is on them to make things clear.”
Some questions you can ask: What course of treatment do you recommend? Will I need to take medication? Will I need to monitor my blood sugar levels (and how often)? Are there any alternatives to what you’re recommending? Are there any side effects? How often do I need to come in for testing?
Don’t forget to talk to your doctor about lifestyle management and diabetes education.
“Food, exercise, sleep, and stress affect your health and diabetes,” Dr. Ogunwole says. Your provider should be able to speak to you about possible lifestyle changes, while still understanding what’s important to you, personally and culturally. She highly recommends a physician that uses shared decision-making—“this means that we work together with patients to try to create a plan that is tailored to their needs.”
The right doctor should also give you information on what to expect about living with diabetes—and potential complications to look out for down the road. Make sure you discuss your risk of things like stroke, blindness, poor wound healing, and kidney disease.
Another piece of the puzzle that your doctor should be open to discussing? Mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), members of the Hispanic/Latinx community are just as vulnerable to mental health issues as anyone else—but they face disparities in accessing treatment.
Specifically, roughly 34% of Hispanic/Latinx people with a mental illness access treatment in any given year, compared to the United States average of 45%. NAMI lists some of the barriers to care as lack of insurance, language barriers, lack of cultural competence among health care providers, and stigma within certain communities. If a diabetes diagnosis is affecting your mental health, experts say it’s important to address that with your doctor.
“It is not uncommon for people with diabetes to also have depression, and this can make taking care of your diabetes really hard,” Dr. Oser says. “Working with a behavioral health team can be an important part of diabetes treatment for some people.”
Ask your doctor about other resources.
“Almost always, diabetes treatment includes a focus on what is often called ‘self-management,’ including things like diet, exercise, taking your medications, and weight management,” Dr. Oser says. She says that working with a diabetes care and education specialist (DCES) can be helpful in adjusting to your treatment and sticking with the plan.
If there’s a specific area of lifestyle management you’re anxious about or struggling with, ask for referrals to a relevant expert. For example, a registered dietitian can help you with diet modifications that work for your lifestyle, including simple tweaks to your favorite meals. “We’re trying to figure out how to create a lifestyle that isn't just about deprivation,” Dr. Ogunwule says. “It’s about health and wellness.”
Make sure you feel listened to.
“You need to feel like you could open up to [your doctor] and ask them questions without feeling judged, and that they listen to you, and that they respect your opinion,” Dr. Ogunwole says. “One of the things I tell my patients is actually, they're the expert of their body, they know their body more than I do, because they've lived in it their whole lives.”
If you have further questions or don’t feel comfortable with a provider, you can always ask for a second opinion. And if you’re working with a language barrier, request a medical interpreter or translator—this service should be available for free at any hospital that receives federal funding.
Feeling comfortable with your diabetes doctor is step one in diabetes management, Dr. Oser says, because “ultimately, you’re the one who has to live with the treatment plan, whether it’s checking your glucose levels, exercising, modifying your diet, taking pills, taking injections, or any or all of the above.”
Mental Illness in Hispanic/Latinx Communities: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.). “Hispanic/Latinx.” nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/Hispanic-Latinx
Diabetes Stats: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health. (n.d.). “Diabetes and Hispanic Americans.” minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx