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Search Health Information    Work Closely With Your Doctor

Work Closely With Your Doctor

Overview

Good health care doesn't just happen. You have to do your part. Taking an active role in your health care is the best way to make sure you get great care and reduce costs at the same time.

A strong partnership between you and your doctor is key to getting great care and reducing costs. A doctor who not only knows your medical history but understands what's important to you may be the resource you need most when you face a major health care decision.

Find a Doctor Who Will Be a Partner

A primary care physician such as a family medicine doctor or an internist who knows and understands your needs can be your most valuable health partner. Specialists who work on separate health problems may not see your whole health picture or get a good understanding of what's important to you. When you choose a doctor, there are lots of questions to ask, but these three matter the most:

  • Is the doctor well trained and experienced?
  • Will the doctor be available when needed?
  • Will the doctor work in partnership with me?

Training and experience

For most people, a good choice for a primary care physician is a board-certified family medicine doctor or an internist. For children and teens, a board-certified pediatrician or family medicine doctor is a good choice.

A doctor becomes board-certified by completing training in a specialty area and passing an examination to demonstrate that he or she has the skills and experience needed to practice that medical specialty. To maintain their certification, doctors must take continuing medical education courses and pass periodic examinations. Board-certified family doctors, internists, and pediatricians have knowledge about many common medical problems. For more information, see the topic Medical Specialists.

Availability

Because health problems rarely develop when it's convenient, it helps to have a doctor who can see you when needed. Before you select a doctor, call or visit his or her office. Tell the clinic receptionist that you are looking for a new doctor. Ask these questions:

  • Is the doctor accepting new patients?
  • What are the office hours?
  • If I called right now for a routine visit, how soon could I be seen?
  • How much time is allowed for a routine visit?
  • If I cancel an appointment, will I be charged for it?
  • Will the doctor discuss health problems over the phone or by email?
  • Does the doctor work with nurse practitioners or physician assistants ? (These health professionals have special training in managing minor and routine medical problems. They can often see you sooner, take care of minor health problems, and communicate with your regular doctor about your concerns.)
  • Who fills in for the doctor when he or she is not available?
  • What hospitals does the doctor use?
  • Does the doctor belong to my health plan, and will the office bill my insurance for me?

Partner potential

During your first visit, tell your doctor that you would like to share in making treatment decisions. Pay attention to how you feel during the visit.

  • Does the doctor listen well?
  • Does the doctor speak to you in terms you can understand?
  • Does the doctor spend enough time with you?
  • Do you think you could build a good working relationship with the doctor?

If the answers are no, look for another doctor. It may take more than one visit for you to decide whether you will be able to work with a doctor.

Is it time for a change?

If you are unhappy with how your doctor treats you, it may be time for a change. Before you start looking for a new doctor, talk with your current doctor about how you would like to be treated. Your doctor will probably be pleased to work with you as a partner if you tell him or her that's what you want. If you don't make your wishes known, your doctor may think that you, like many people, want him or her to do all the work.

Learn All You Can From Your Doctor

  1. Use your doctor as a teacher and coach. Some patients just want their doctors to tell them what to do. They don't want to know the whys and the hows. Some of the time, that's fine. But if you really want to get care that best meets your needs, be a patient and a student.
    • Don't just ask your doctor what you should do. Ask why. Your doctor can help you understand your care.
    • Always ask to see if you have options. Which options seem best for you? What are their pros and cons? What effects might your choice have in the short term and over the long term?
    • Benefit from your doctor's experience with other patients. Even though every patient's situation is different, your doctor has probably helped other patients work through the same questions and decisions that you have to deal with. Some doctors may be better teachers and coaches than others, but they really do want to help you get the answers you need.
  2. Tell your doctor that you care about cost. A doctor's main focus is to help you get better, not to save you money. But if you speak up, your doctor may be able to help with both. Don't expect your doctor to know the exact cost of a drug or test or treatment. There are so many things that determine the cost of care—your health plan's arrangement with your doctor, how your plan bills for care, where you get the care, and others. But your doctor can give you an idea of how the cost of one choice compares to another.
  3. Prepare for every doctor visit. This helps your doctor give you better care and helps both of you make the most of the visit.
    • Be ready to say what your main symptoms are, when they started, and what you have done to treat them so far. It may help to write these things down before your doctor visit.
    • Write down the three questions that you most want to have answered. If the doctor does not bring them up, don't be afraid to ask.
    • Bring a list of all the medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements that you are taking.
    • Bring copies of recent test results if the tests were done by a different doctor.
  4. Take an active role in every visit or call.
    • Pay attention. Ask questions if you don't understand something.
    • Write down the diagnosis, the treatment plan, and any guidelines for self-care and follow-up visits or calls.
    • Be honest and direct about what you do or do not plan to do.
  5. Learn all you can about your health problem. Good information—whether you get it from your doctor, the library, or a trusted website—is a powerful tool for helping you make wise health decisions. If you have a complicated problem or want to know more about your health options:
    • Start by asking your doctor if he or she has information about your problem that you could take home. Some doctors offer DVDs, CDs, brochures, or reprints from medical journals.
    • If you need to make a decision about a treatment, find out how quickly you need to decide. You may have a few days, weeks, or months to explore your options.
    • If your health plan has an advice line, call and ask if they can help you get more information.
    • If you use the Internet to find health information, start by searching sources such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or a national organization that represents a particular disease, like the American Diabetes Association or the National Cancer Institute. These sources present information that is based on the analysis of a large body of medical evidence. Your health plan may also provide health information on its website.
    • If you have questions or concerns about the information you find, discuss them with your doctor.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Consumers & Patients
540 Gaither Road
Suite 2000
Rockville, MD 20850
Phone: (301) 427-1364
Web Address: www.ahrq.gov/consumer
 

This Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) website has evidence-based tips on staying healthy, choosing quality care, getting safe care, understanding diseases, comparing medical treatments, and more. AHRQ is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It supports research that will help people make more informed decisions and improve the quality of health care services.


National Institutes of Health: Clear Communication
9000 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20892
Phone: (301) 496-4000
TDD: (301) 402-9612
Email: NIHinfo@od.nih.gov
Web Address: www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/talktoyourdoctor.htm
 

This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website offers tips for how to partner with your doctor.


National Patient Safety Foundation
268 Summer Street, 6th Floor
Boston, MA 02210
Phone: (617) 391-9900
Fax: (617) 391-9999
Web Address: www.npsf.org
 

The National Patient Safety Foundation is an organization dedicated to improving the safety of patients. The foundation works to raise public awareness about patient safety and is a resource for people and organizations who are concerned about the safety of patients.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Street RL Jr, et al. (2009). How does communication heal? Pathways linking clinician-patient communication to health outcomes. Patient Education and Counseling, 74(3): 295–301.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Last Revised April 19, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

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