New in Town: A smart approach to searching for a new doctor

Question:

I recently married and moved to a new area. I found a physician for type 1 diabetes (T1D) care and checked his credentials, and he seems good “on paper.” But is there a checklist of questions I can ask to gauge whether this is the right physician for me?

Answer:

First, congratulations on this new, exciting chapter in your life! Moving to a new city and searching for a new doctor can seem daunting, but what better reason to do all that than getting married? Both my daughter and I live with T1D, so I know how essential it is to find the right doctor. It’s important to find one who not only has solid knowledge of and experience with T1D in general, but also understands that everyone with T1D is a little different. You want a doctor who can attend to your personal circumstances and needs.

My daughter and I have found local chapters of JDRF to be wonderful sources of information and support. Not only are they helpful for forming friendships with others who live with T1D—especially when you’re new in town—but chapters can often recommend local healthcare professionals who specialize in T1D care. And members are usually more than happy to share their personal experiences with general practitioners, endocrinologists, certified diabetes educators, and others, to help you cut through some of the vetting process.

When it comes right down to it, however, you know best what you need, and preparing yourself with a checklist of “interview” questions can help ensure that you get all the information you need out of your first office visit. The following questions are based on the issues that occur most frequently with my daughter and myself—they are what I would ask if I were interviewing a new doctor.

1)      What are the doctor’s office hours?

If your work schedule is hectic or unpredictable, you may need a doctor who sees patients in the early morning or after 5:00 p.m. Some doctors provide such “convenience” hours once a week or a few times per month. Ask if that is the case with your doctor.

2)      How much lead time is usually required to get an appointment, and, once there, what is the average waiting-room time?

It’s unfortunately the case that better doctors are usually busier doctors. When you call to make an appointment, can you expect an opening in the next day or two, or is the doctor booked until next week? Also, will the office staff be able to fit you in if you have an urgent matter?

3)      With whom does the doctor share call hours, and what do you do if you need attention after office hours?

Your doctor keeps regular office hours, but your T1D does not. It’s a 24/7 challenge, and you’ll be much more comfortable knowing that there is a plan in place if you have a question or issue that can’t wait until morning. A doctor who has expertise in T1D will have someone you can call, so that you can rest easier.

4)      Is the doctor or someone on the staff available by email?

My favorite doctors—the ones with whom I’ve felt most comfortable—have always been those who go that extra step to make themselves available. Not everyone has the time (even doctors need rest), but if they’re willing to try, that says a lot in my book.

5)      Is there a certified diabetes educator (CDE) and/or registered dietitian (R.D.) in the office? If not, with whom does the doctor work most closely?

Those of us who have worked with a CDE or an R.D. know that these professionals are worth their weight in gold. Even if your doctor has an encyclopedic knowledge of T1D, the specialized attention that a CDE or an R.D. can give to the way you manage your T1D can be invaluable.

6)      Can you have your hemoglobin A1c drawn in the office?

Let’s face it, those of us who live with T1D deal with more daily inconveniences than many other people. Any little thing that makes managing T1D just that much easier—like not having to make a separate trip to a laboratory four times a year for a simple test—is worth asking about.

7)      At which hospitals does the doctor have privileges?

Many doctors have “privileges” at one or more hospitals, giving them the right to admit patients, order tests, perform certain procedures, and administer treatment. Most people with T1D would agree that, if you absolutely have to visit the hospital, it’s much more comfortable being attended by your own doctor, or at least knowing that his/her care instructions are being followed by hospital staff. Being attended by strangers—no matter how knowledgeable they may be in T1D—can make a difficult situation confusing or overwhelming. Knowing where your doctor has privileges can help allay these concerns.

8)      What is the doctor’s approach to managing T1D? 

I find that a doctor’s ability to listen in a nonjudgmental manner is very important. I like doctors who inspire me to take the best care I can of myself and my daughter. I prefer not to see doctors who are negative or who fail to appreciate the hard daily work that we put in to manage T1D. Quite simply, a doctor should be someone you like and can talk to, as it is a relationship that should last for years.

Last but not least, it is important to remember that your healthcare professionals can be only as good as the information they have. Make sure to bring all relevant medical records to your first visit. If you don’t have those records, your previous doctor’s office can forward them to your new doctor. Also, if you have any particular concerns about your T1D management, now is the time to bring them up. Many people find it helpful to write down their concerns (just like they may write down these questions) and bring the list with them, to ensure they don’t forget to ask.