How to Choose a Doctor

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Choosing a new physician can be a difficult task, especially if you have moved and are living in a new community. Asking for recommendations from coworkers, neighbors, and friends is a good way to start, but ultimately you will have to decide which physician is best suited to your individual needs and situation.

Your insurance plan may restrict your choices to a group of plan-approved physicians or offer financial incentives to use plan-affiliated doctors. Always check the terms of your insurance coverage to find out whether your plan will cover visits to the physician you are considering. If he or she does not participate in your health plan, how much will you pay out-of-pocket for visits to this provider? If you have changed jobs and must decide among different health plans offered by your employer, you may want to make your choice of doctor first and then choose the health plan that covers visits to this physician.

You will also need to decide what type of physician you are looking for. Do you need a primary health care provider (a doctor who will manage your overall care and refer you to specialists when necessary)? Or do you need a specialist in a particular area?

Most practicing physicians in the U.S. both primary care physicians physicians (a doctor you would see for routine ailments such as a cold, the flu, and regular checkups) and specialists (doctors who focus on one area whom you would see, for example, for a colonoscopy, rheumatoid arthritis, IBS , multiple sclerosis, cancer, or other specific conditions) are board certified, meaning that they have completed residency training in a specific field following graduation from medical school and have passed a competency examination in that field. Primary care providers may be board certified in different areas such as, for instance, Family Medicine or Internal Medicine.  

It is also possible to find out whether a physician is in good standing with state licensing agencies through a Web site run by administrators of several state medical licensure boards. The Web site Administrators In Medicine can provide information about disciplinary actions taken or criminal charges filed against physicians in many states.

Finally, you may have additional concerns when choosing a physician. These concerns should reflect your own needs and priorities The following questions can help you to define further what is most important for you:

  1. Where is the practice located? Will it be easy for you to get there? Is it accessible by public transportation? Is there ample parking?
  1. Which hospital(s) does the doctor use? Are you comfortable with the possibility of being treated at one of these institutions should the need arise?
  1. Where are routine x-rays and laboratory studies performed? Can these be done in-office, or will you have to go to an outside laboratory?
  1. How long must you wait for an appointment after you call? Can you be seen on the same day if you have an urgent need?
  1. Is the office staff friendly and courteous?
  1. If you call with a question about your care, does a doctor or nurse return your call promptly?
  1. Who covers for the physician when he/she is away? Whom should you call if you have a problem after-hours? If the doctor works in a group, are you comfortable with being seen by one of the practice partners?
  1. Does the physician frequently refer patients to specialists or does he/she prefer to manage the majority of your care themselves?
  1. Does the office process insurance claims, or must you pay up-front for services and file the claims yourself?

If you still aren't sure about your choice, ask if you can make an "interview" appointment to speak with the physician about your concerns. You may have to pay a co-payment or other fee for this service, but it can be a valuable way to gather information when making your decision.