The pain in my jaw was back, and it wasn’t going away this time. I went to the dentist to get it checked out and one of my deepest fears came to life: I’d need to get my wisdom teeth removed. Even worse: It wouldn’t be your standard dental office procedure—there were complications and I’d need to see a specialist. I asked him about how to find a doctor to help me, and he referred me to an oral surgeon. That’s when the real trouble began.
“You should have had this procedure done years ago,” scolded the oral surgeon during our consultation a few days later. “Why didn’t you have this done yet?”
I cowered in the chair, my jaw throbbing with pain, unsure of how to respond. He met with me for all of five minutes, during which he explained that the oral surgery would cost about $7,000 (a sum that I, a recent college grad, did not have) and told me I should speak with another staff member about taking out a loan. He left in a huff.
How could I trust this doctor, who chastised me and hardly explained the surgery, to take care of me with compassion during an invasive procedure?
I decided to shop around, but it turned out that the intricacies of healthcare in the U.S. make it extremely difficult to figure out how to find a doctor who fits your needs and your budget. Few medical offices reveal prices ahead of time, and ratings from patients are often mixed (if you can even find them).
After nearly two dozen unsuccessful calls to oral surgeons in the Bay Area drove me to tears, I ended up on the phone with the sweetest receptionist at an oral surgery office who explained that the doctor was an expert in this particular procedure and was willing to work with me on financing. I went to a consultation that lasted more than an hour, and the oral surgeon patiently explained exactly what would happen during the procedure and why it was important for my health.
This was a doctor I felt I could trust. The entire experience—from going under anesthesia and getting a bone graft to healing and eventually getting the stitches removed—went better (and cost less) than I had expected. What a relief!
A great oral surgeon is just one of many doctors we might need in our lives. No matter what type of care you’re looking for, you’ll need a solid strategy for how to choose a doctor. R. Ruth Linden, PhD, who helps people find medical experts in her role as health advocate and president of Tree of Life Health Advocates, a private health-advocacy firm in San Francisco, shares her insights on how to find a doctor you can trust.
How to Find a Doctor Who Can Help You With Your Goals
With so many factors involved in how to choose a doctor, it can be tough to know exactly where to start. Linden recommends coming up with a list of healthcare-related goals you’re hoping to achieve by working with a medical professional.
“What do you want to get out of the appointment, and the relationship? In order to get your needs met, you need to know exactly what they are. Ask yourself what your goals are,” she says.
Examples of goals might be successfully managing a chronic illness, improving your sleep habits, developing a healthier diet, or overcoming depression. These goals will not only give you (and your doctor) clarity about what you expect to achieve, but they’ll also inform the type of medical professional from whom you seek care.
Your first stop might be a primary care physician, internist, or family doctor. These types of doctors are trained in helping patients manage their general health, diagnosing diseases and illnesses, administering treatments, and dealing with everyday concerns. Most of these doctors hold MD (medical doctor) degrees, and they practice the form of medicine most Americans are familiar with, which is known as allopathic medicine.
A minority of doctors choose to get a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine) degree. They undergo practically the same training as their MD colleagues, but they also spend another 200 hours or so learning more about the musculoskeletal system and osteopathic manipulation, a technique in which a doctor uses touch to diagnose and treat patients.
Both types of doctors undergo years of training and need to pass a licensing exam to earn their white coats. Whether you choose a DO or an MD depends on your preferences and who is available in your area.
Some health concerns require the intervention of a specialist. For example, most women choose to get birth control, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, and Pap smears from an obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN). Allergists and immunologists treat disorders of the immune system such as food allergies, asthma, and eczema. Otolaryngologists treat disorders and diseases in patients’ ears, noses, and throats. Dermatologists treat problems with the skin, nails, and hair. As for mental health, both psychologists and psychiatrists can help treat depression, anxiety, addiction, and other concerns, but only the latter can prescribe medications, like antidepressants.
The list of areas and treatment types doctors can specialize in runs long, and some people choose to see doctors who are trained in traditions outside of allopathic medicine. Naturopaths, for example, are doctors who use natural approaches, such as acupuncture and nutrition, to address health issues.
You may need to get a referral from your primary care physician to get treatment from a specialty doctor depending on your particular medical needs and insurance requirements. In most cases, they’ll recommend a handful of specialists for you to choose from. If for some reason you’re sent to a specialist you don’t want to work with going forward, you can explore options for seeing someone else with your insurer, or by asking for another referral from your PCP.
Finding a Doctor Who Takes Your Insurance
Once you come up with your list of goals and potential specialists who can address your particular concerns, the next step in how to find a doctor is thinking about your budget. If you’re insured, you’ll need to decide whether you want to work with someone in network with your health insurance.
“An in-network provider will reduce your out-of-pocket costs, but sometimes it’s challenging or even impossible to find a great doctor who takes your insurance,” says Linden.
You can usually find an up-to-date list of in-network providers on your insurance provider’s website. If nothing comes up, which is more likely to happen when you’re looking for a specialist, you’ll have to broaden your search—and consider your willingness to pay more.
How to Find a Doctor: Building a Short List
Once you’ve determined whether you’re going to use your health insurance, it’s time to come up with a list of candidates. A Google search for doctors is likely to yield an unwieldy array of options, which is why Linden recommends starting your search the old-fashioned way: by asking your friends, family, and colleagues for recommendations.
Online resources such as Yelp, ZocDoc, Healthgrades, and RateMDs can also give you an inside look at other patients’ experiences with particular doctors. But take those reviews with a grain of salt, says Linden.
“People use online review sites to comment on all kinds of irrelevant things, like parking, the elevator, the demeanor of the front desk staff. These are things you might want to be aware of, but many times, they’re not the doctor’s responsibility and don’t reflect on how they care for patients,” she says.
Qualifications play a big role in how to choose a doctor. Merely having an MD isn’t enough to prove that a doctor provides high-quality care, says Linden, who only refers her clients to board-certified professionals.
“It’s very important to see someone who’s board certified,” says Linden. “That credential assures you that the doctor has completed his or her training and passed a national exam. It’s a minimal standard, as far as I’m concerned.”
Doctors will typically share their certifications in the bio sections of their websites. You can cross-reference their board certifications with the Administrators in Medicine DocFinder, the American Board of Medical Specialties Certification Matters site, or the American Board of Family Medicine doctor finder.
Gender is another important factor in how to choose a doctor. Some patients feel indifferent about whether their physician is a man or a woman, while others may struggle to feel comfortable receiving care from someone of the opposite gender.
“I find that women tend to prefer to see women doctors, while men don’t care,” says Linden.
It takes a lot more than the right gender, a recommendation from a friend, and solid credentials to make a doctor the right fit for you, though. You also have to consider the logistics of working with any medical professional. Is their practice close driving or walking distance from where you live or work? Is the doctor accepting new patients right now? Can you get in for an appointment relatively soon? A “no” answer to any of these questions doesn’t make a doctor a poor choice for you, but you should think about whether or not it’s worth it to travel far or wait a long time to be seen at a practice.
“Long wait lists for an appointment are not a red flag. I referred a client to to the very best internist in her area, who had 4,000 five-star Yelp reviews. She couldn’t be seen for months because she’s in demand, but she’s worth waiting for if you don’t need to be seen right away,” says Linden.
All of these factors should help you narrow down your list of candidates to just a select few doctors. Then, go with your gut—if you’re naturally drawn to one of the physicians, it’s time to see if he or she is the right doctor for you. Call up the practice and schedule an appointment.
Finding The Right Match
Your relationship with your doctor will be an incredibly intimate experience. He or she will know some of the most personal details of your life, ranging from your family medical history and allergies to your sexual history and substance use. Getting the best personalized care depends on how open and honest you can be with your doctor.
“There’s a loop I like to work through with each client when introducing them to a new physician,” says Linden. “It consists of three legs: preparing for the appointment, asking questions during the appointment, and debriefing after the appointment.”
Get ready for your initial appointment by referring to your health goals and drafting a list of questions for the doctor. Think about what you hope to get from the appointment, says Linden, who offers several examples of potential inquiries for a doctor:
- I take blood pressure medication but I want to make some lifestyle changes so I no longer need the prescription. Is that something you can help me with?
- I’ve been feeling depressed. Can you talk to me about the pros and cons of starting an antidepressant?
- I want to lose 20 pounds. Can you provide nutritional guidance to help me?
“You can’t make a decision about whether that doctor is a match for you unless you understand your own expectations,” says Linden.
Meeting with the doctor gives you the opportunity to ask those questions and evaluate the physician’s communication style and bedside manner. Linden emphasizes the importance of asserting your preferences and needs during this initial appointment.
“You have to learn to advocate for yourself. We all become passive in a medical setting because of the power differential between doctor and patient, but you have to be assertive. If you need to be handled with special care, tell the doctor so they have the opportunity to treat you extra gently,” she says.
If the doctor frequently interrupts you, fails to address your preferences, or isn’t flexible in her handling of patients, she’s probably not the right fit for you. Take some time to reflect on how things went after the appointment.
“Did you feel your questions were answered? Did the doctor meet your expectations? What happened and how did you feel about it?” asks Linden.
Hopefully the legwork you did as you decided how to choose a doctor led you to a physician with expertise in your health concerns and a style that resonates with you. And if not, keep searching—it can be frustrating to try out different physicians, but it pays off tenfold when you finally find a doctor you trust.