Heath and Aging

Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People

Getting Started: Choosing a Doctor You Can Talk To

Finding a main doctor (often called your primary doctor or primary care doctor) 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.

cartoon of woman choosing a doctor

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 (HMO) or preferred provider organization (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.

What are HMOs and PPOs?

Members of a health maintenance organization (HMO) pay a set monthly fee no matter how many (or few) times they see a doctor. Usually there are no deductibles or claims forms but you will have a co-payment for doctor visits and prescriptions. Each member chooses a primary care doctor from within the HMO network. The primary care doctor coordinates all care and, if necessary, refers members to specialists.

A preferred provider organization (PPO) is a network of doctors and other health care providers. The doctors in this network agree to provide medical services to PPO health plan members at discounted costs. Members can choose to see any doctor at any time. Choosing a non-PPO provider is called ‘going out of network' and will cost more than seeing a member of the PPO network.

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. MedlinePlus, a website from the National Library of Medicine, has a comprehensive list of directories (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/directories.html) which may also be helpful.

There are plenty of other Internet resources too—for example, you can find doctors through the American Medical Association's website at www.ama-assn.org (click on "Doctor Finder"). For a list of doctors who participate in Medicare, visit www.medicare.gov (click on "Search Tools" then "Find a Doctor"). WebMD also provides a list of doctors at www.webmd.com (click on "Doctors").

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.

What Does "Board Certified" Mean?

Doctors who are board certified have extra training after regular medical school. They also have passed an exam certifying their expertise in specialty areas. Examples of specialty areas are general internal medicine, family medicine, geriatrics, gynecology, and orthopedics. Board certification is one way to learn about a doctor's medical expertise; it doesn't tell you about the doctor's communication skills.

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 questions like:

  • 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?

Make a choice

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.

Summary: Choosing a Doctor You Can Talk To

  • Decide what you are looking for in a doctor.
  • Identify several possible doctors.
  • Consult reference sources, including the Internet.
  • Talk to office staff to learn more about the doctors you are considering.
  • Make a choice.

Tips: What Do You Need to Know About a Doctor?

Basics

  • Is the doctor taking new patients?
  • Is the doctor covered by my insurance plan?
  • Does the doctor accept Medicare?

Qualifications and Characteristics

  • Is the doctor board certified? In what field?
  • Is the age, sex, race, or religion of the doctor important?
  • Will language be an obstacle to communication? Is there someone in the office who speaks my language?
  • Do I prefer a group practice or an individual doctor?
  • Does it matter which hospital the doctor admits patients to?

Logistics

  • Is the location of the doctor's office important? How far am I willing to travel to see the doctor?
  • Is there parking? What does it cost? Is the office on a bus or subway line?
  • Does the building have an elevator? What about ramps for a wheelchair or walker?

Office Policies

  • What days/hours does the doctor see patients?
  • Are there times set aside for the doctor to take phone calls? Does the doctor accept emailed questions? Is there a charge for this service?
  • Does the doctor ever make house calls?
  • How far in advance do I have to make appointments?
  • What's the process for urgent care? How do I reach the doctor in an emergency?
  • Who takes care of patients after hours or when the doctor is away?

 

Publication Date: April 2010
Page Last Updated: July 18, 2014