Along with their relationships with family members and friends, many people consider their relationships with their doctors to be some of the most influential and important bonds in their lives. After all, a person needs to be able to trust his or her doctors as he or she shares private information with them, seeks recommendations from them for how to prolong good health, and counts on them to provide treatment when he or she is in poor health. These patient-doctor relationships can become even more meaningful as people grow older and experience more frequent and severe health problems.
Because people’s relationships with their doctors are so important, it is necessary for them to choose the right doctors to handle their healthcare. For many people, this decision begins with choosing a family doctor who will serve as their first point of contact with the medical field. Although choosing a family doctor is not always easy because it takes time and effort, finding the right one can help a person have the best healthcare experience possible.
The Family Doctor
A family doctor is a doctor who is trained to care for people of all ages ranging from infants to the elderly. Family doctors can care for people throughout their entire lives and also often care for several members of the same family. Because they care for people long-term and frequently see members of the same family, they get to know their patients very well. They have a good sense of how a family’s medical history will impact a patient’s health and also frequently have firsthand knowledge of a patient’s prior health problems, which can help them successfully treat and advise their patients.
Family doctors are trained in all areas of medicine. This is important because when people are sick, they often go to see their family doctors first. So, family doctors need to be able to diagnose and treat a wide range of health problems ranging from sinus and respiratory infections to broken bones. They also need to know when to refer patients with more serious conditions to specialists or other healthcare facilities that are better equipped to treat such conditions.
Family doctors are trained in preventative medicine. They help their patients make healthy choices and lead healthy lifestyles by giving advice on topics including exercise, diet, and weight management. This advice can help people avoid health problems before they occur. Additionally, a family doctor can monitor a patient’s health over time and help him or her keep track of his or her medical history so that any changes indicative of health problems can be caught and treated early. Since family doctors can help patients avoid health problems and catch any issues early, it is important for people to see family doctors for regular check ups even if they do not have any current health problems.
Given that family doctors need to know how to diagnose and treat people of all ages with all different types of medical problems, they need a lot of training. Family doctors need to complete eight years of formal education beyond high school (four years to get an undergraduate degree from a college or university and four more years to graduate from medical school).
After those eight years, family doctors spend another three years working as residents treating patients in offices and hospitals. During that three-year time period, family doctors train in many different areas of medicine (ex. pediatrics, which focuses on children, and gynecology, which focuses on women and the female reproductive system) to learn diagnostic and treatment techniques to apply to people of all ages with all kinds of health conditions.
Family doctors are required to pass licensing tests to practice in the United States. Additionally, after they complete their three-year residencies, they are eligible to take a certification exam given by the American Board of Family Medicine. Passing that certification exam indicates that they have special training in the field of family medicine. Family doctors need to take re-certification exams throughout their careers as well to make sure that they stay up-to-date on current medical treatments and technologies.
When people start to look for a family doctor, it is a good idea for them to check with their insurance providers and obtain a list of family doctors who will accept their insurance plans. Some people may have insurance plans that do not give them many choices for family doctors. Choosing a family doctor who participates in someone’s insurance plan is important because services from that doctor are likely much less expensive to a patient than services from a doctor who does not participate in the insurance plan.
After checking with their insurance providers, people can talk to others that they trust (friends, family members, other medical professionals, etc) to see which family doctors they would recommend. Requesting a list of board-certified family doctors from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) is also an option that people can use to generate a list of possible family doctors.
Once people have a shorter list of family doctors who accept their insurance plans and are recommended by people or organizations that they trust, they can call or visit the offices of those doctors for more information. Asking for more information can help people determine which family doctors’ offices have policies, procedures, and a structure that best fit their needs. Some questions that people should ask of potential family doctors and their offices include:
• What are the office hours? Are there weekend or evening hours?
• Are the doctors accepting new patients?
• What hospitals are the doctors affiliated with?
• How many doctors are in the practice?
• On average, how long does it take to get an appointment? Is it easy to see the doctor right away (or on the same day) in a case of sudden illness?
• How long is the usual office visit?
• Who sees patients if the doctor is out of town or otherwise unavailable?
• Does the office or a nearby location perform lab tests and x-rays?
• Does the doctor see many patients with these specific conditions (patients should insert any chronic diseases that they may have here, such as diabetes, for example)?
• Can a family member (ex. spouse or child) come along on office visits?
• How are after-hours calls handled? How quickly do the doctors respond to calls left with the answering service? Is it possible to communicate with the doctors via e-mail with questions?
• What are the office’s payment policies? What types of payment are accepted?
• What are the policies regarding referrals to specialists?
Based on the information that a person has gathered by calling family doctors’ offices, he or she should select a family doctor and schedule an appointment to meet the doctor in person and talk to him or her. The patient should ask his or her new family doctor questions about his or her health, the doctor’s treatment philosophies, etc. Also, this appointment will give the doctor a chance to ask the patient some preliminary questions about his or her health and family medical history.
After the appointment, the patient should think about how comfortable and confident he or she felt with the doctor. A patient will need to discuss personal information with the doctor. Building a trusting, comfortable relationship with a doctor takes time, but if a person feels completely uncomfortable or uncertain around a doctor during the first visit, it may be a sign the doctor is not right for the patient.
Along with feelings of comfort and confidence, a patient should also look for the following signs during a first appointment with a doctor:
• The doctor answered all of his or her questions
• The doctor explained things in a way the patient could understand
• The patient had enough time to ask all of his or her questions
• The patient liked the doctor’s style of sharing information and making decisions
• The patient got the sense that he or she and the doctor could work together well
• The doctor seemed to understand the patient’s beliefs and concerns and was non-judgmental
People change the family doctors that they see for a variety of reasons. For example, they may be moving to a new state, they may have gotten a new insurance plan, they may not feel comfortable with their current doctors, or they may not like their family doctors for other reasons. Although switching family doctors happens frequently within the healthcare field, it can be a time-consuming process.
When a person changes family doctors, he or she needs to go through the same basic steps that he or she would if he or she was choosing a family doctor without already having one. The person needs to check with his or her insurance provider to determine what rules (if any) exist for switching family doctors and also to identify other doctors who accept his or her insurance plan. Then the patient should check with others that he or she trusts for recommendations, narrow down the list of candidates, and call those selected offices with a list of questions. Next, the person should choose one doctor that seems to best meet his or her needs, make an appointment, and evaluate how he or she feels after the appointment.
Finally, when that person finds a new family doctor, he or she should request that the prior family doctor’s office sends a copy of his or her medical records while requesting a personal copy of the records to verify that they are accurate and up-to-date.