To your health: 5 questions to ask your new doctor

By Lawrence Schlitt, M.D., Scripps Health

At some point, nearly everyone will need to choose a new physician, perhaps because of a change in insurance, a move to a new city, or simply a feeling that it is time to make a switch.

Your relationship with your physician is perhaps one of the most important in your life, and you want a provider who is not only highly knowledgeable and experienced, but also understands your needs and communicates effectively.

Asking a few important questions like the ones below can help ensure you will feel confident and comfortable with your new doctor.

  1. What are your qualifications?
Medical school is only the beginning of a physician’s education and training; an internship, followed by a residency in the physician’s area of specialization, also are required. Some physicians go on to complete a fellowship, which is another period of specialized medical training or research.

Ask about board certification. A board-certified physician has gone beyond basic licensing and met nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills in a specific medical specialty. Studies have shown that board-certified physicians provide higher quality care and have better patient care outcomes.

Ask whether the physician has any special areas of expertise. A primary care physician, for example, may enjoy working with amateur athletes, or may have an interest in complementary treatments such as acupuncture or herbal medicine. Some gynecologists specialize in treating the challenges of infertility or menopause. Many physicians participate in research studies as well, or teach at local universities or medical schools.

  1. To which hospitals do you admit patients?
If you should need surgery or hospital care, ask where the physician will send you. Ideally, you want to go to a hospital, clinic or surgery center that has undergone a rigorous on-site evaluation against established quality and safety standards, such as that provided by The Joint Commission. Also, make sure your insurance plan covers care at the hospital with which your physician is affiliated.

  1. How do you like to work with patients?
Good communication is key to a strong relationship between physician and patient. Some physicians take a more authoritative approach to care, and tell patients exactly what to do rather than discussing various options with them. This approach may be welcomed by patients who want the doctor to make all the decisions about their care.

Other physicians may offer several options and make a recommendation. For example, “You can reduce the sodium in your diet or take medication to control your blood pressure. I would recommend the medication.” Still other physicians may explain all of the treatment options, discuss the pros and cons of each, and leave the final decision up to the patient. Decide how involved you want to be in your treatment decisions, and find a doctor with a similar approach.

  1. Who can I call if I have questions?
If you have a question about your care, who can you contact for information? Physicians generally cannot come to the phone every time a patient calls. Often, calls are handled by a nurse or physician assistant, who may be able to return your call sooner than the doctor could. If they cannot provide an answer or you really need to speak with the physician, ask how long it will take for him or her to get back to you. Some physicians may answer questions by email as well.

  1. What if I need care on short notice or after office hours?
If you are sick or injured, will you be able to be seen within a day or two? Some physicians make time for last-minute appointments or have their physician assistants or nurse practitioners available to handle them. Also, know what to expect if you call after hours, such as in the evening or on a weekend. If there is no physician on call, you may need to go to an urgent care center or emergency department.

Knowing what to expect from a new physician can help build trust, confidence and satisfaction. Remember, you and your physician are a team, and the better you work together, the better you will feel about your care.

Lawrence Schlitt, M.D., is a family medicine physician with Scripps Health. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information or a physician referral, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS.