I was one of the fortunate few — someone who had a neurologist they liked and trusted. I felt like a person in his office rather than just one of many patients. But all that changed very quickly. At my first appointment of the year, my doctor informed he had cancer. He assured me that he would be fine. Before my next appointment, six months later, he had lost his battle with the disease. I was devastated.
There are so many reasons why a change in doctor may be necessary: perhaps you’ve moved, your insurance has changed, or your doctor is no longer practicing medicine. Here are some things to keep in mind when looking for a new doctor.
Step 1: Get a list of providers from your insurance company
You may not be able to just pick whoever you want to be your doctor due to the ever-changing policies offered by different companies. The first place to start, though, is the insurance company’s website, where you can search for local doctors in their network.
Pro tip: Don’t always take the insurance company’s website as gospel. Once you pick a doctor on the list, call their office to make sure they take your insurance, as insurance companies' websites are not always updated frequently.
Step 2: Get a list of recommended providers from other patients
The best way to find a new doctor is to get a recommendation from someone you know. Talk to your friends; they may not have a doctor they recommend, but they may have a list of doctors to avoid, which can save you time. As with Step 1, once you have the name of a doctor, call their office to see if you’re covered before you get your hopes up.
Pro tip: Not all doctors in the same practice take the same insurance plans. Be sure to call and specifically ask about the doctor you want to see.
Step 3: Get your referral
If you’re in an HMO, you will need a referral from your primary care physician (PCP) to see a new doctor. Be sure to get your referral in process before you make your appointment, as some places won’t even let you make an appointment without the referral in hand. When you go to your new doctor for the first time, bring a hard copy of the referral. Too often things get lost in the mail or online.
Pro tip: Try to call your PCP’s office with AMPLE time before your appointment. Sometimes it takes weeks to get the referral processed.
Step 4: Do your research
Research your doctor online, find out his or her background, see if anyone is upset with care they've received, etc. Look at the hospital that your doctor is affiliated with. Does it have a good reputation? Would you want to stay there if you had to be admitted? You can never have too much information when picking a new provider.
Step 5: Make the appointment
Have you ever had a great doctor who had a terrible office staff? When you call, are they friendly and willing to help? Do they show any flexibility in scheduling?
The people who run medical offices are people, too: They’re allowed to have bad days, but multiple negative experiences with office staff can be a bad sign. Your doctor might be amazing, but office staff does all the paperwork and makes the phone calls. They need to be just as on the ball as your doctor.
Things to think about when making this appointment:
- How far out does this doctor book?
- Is this a teaching school/hospital? (In other words, are you OK with having students learning from you and your case?)
- Will you see multiple doctors at this appointment?
- What is their protocol for cancelling and rescheduling appointments?
Pro tip: When you call to make your appointment, now is a good time to ask how the doctor handles emergency appointments.
Step 6: Ask TONS of questions
If you’ve made it this far, you should walk into your exam room with a boatload of questions. This first appointment is not about your MS (in my opinion): it’s an interview of this doctor. I try to set up these types of appointments when I’m healthy, so I can focus on meeting the doctor, getting a feel for them, and seeing if we’re going to work well together.
Now is the time to ask about the doctor's background, policy for scheduling patients, protocol for emergency situations, who will take over if they are not available, etc. This is your shot to get to know this person as much as you can before committing to their care.
Pro tip: Talk to your new doctor confidently, like a real person, not just an MS patient. Tell the doctor about your life and see how he or she reacts. If the doctor has an actual conversation with you, I would speculate that this person would be a great doctor because he or she sees you as an equal participant in your health care.
Step 7: Do a test run
Call your new doctor’s office with a somewhat arbitrary request/question and see how they handle it. Some might think this is wasting the doctor/office staff’s time, but for me, it's important to see how my urgent questions or situations will be handled. Does it take hours to get a call back? Does the nurse or a doctor call you back? Did they actually answer your question?
Pro tip: Make your “test run” call in the morning, which will give them the whole day to return your call.
Step 8: Consider this doctor’s convenience level
We’re all busy people. I don’t always have the time (or patience) to sit on hold with the doctor’s office when I have a question, or wait a whole day for a return call. A doctor who answers email or has a patient portal is a big winner in my book.
Consider how your doctor handles patient questions. Do you have to call the office every time? What about texting? Or virtual office visits? Consider your life and your schedule and see if you can envision working with this doctor’s communication options.
Pro tip: This is a great question to ask when you’re interviewing your new doctor in Step 5!
Step 9: Consider your feelings
Bottom line: How did you feel talking to this doctor? What are you willing to compromise on, if anything? I have had some red flags with past neurologists that made me know that he or she was not the doctor for me. Belittling me, neglecting my care, disrespecting my time, and having an elitist attitude are all deal breakers — and are all things I’ve experienced.
I’ve recently picked a new neurologist, and so far I’m very happy. Her office staff was friendly over the phone and in person. I didn’t wait very long when I arrived for my appointment. She actually listened to me when I spoke. She didn’t push treatment that I wasn't interested in and worked with me to create a treatment plan we were both happy with. I haven’t had a flare while under this doctor’s care, but I have faith that it will be handled with urgency and care.
When it comes to picking a new doctor, trust your gut but also look at the available facts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and remember: you are interviewing them.
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Jackie is an ulcerative colitis patient and the founder and Executive Director of Girls With Guts. Since diagnosis, she has been blogging her IBD journey at Blood, Poop, and Tears. Jackie has worked hard to become a strong voice in the patient advocacy community, and pays it forward as Social Ambassador of the IBDHealthCentral Facebook page.