Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you are looking for a new physician, get the answers you need to find the right fit

When the time comes to choose a new physician, trust, confidence and effective two-way communication are keys to a successful doctor-patient relationship. Asking a potential new physician the five questions below can provide important information about his or her knowledge, experience, communication style and more, and help determine if the doctor is a good fit for you.

1. What are the doctor’s medical qualifications and experience?

The minimum requirements for a physician are medical school, an internship, and residency in his or her area of specialization, such as cardiology. Some physicians go on to complete a fellowship, which is another period of specialized medical training or research.

“In addition to education, a physician’s certifications, professional experience and areas of interest can provide valuable insight into his or her expertise,” says Lawrence Schlitt, MD, a family medicine specialist with Scripps Clinic in San Diego. “If you have a specific interest such as women’s health, consider finding a physician who shares that interest.”

You may find it helpful to ask about the following:

  • Board certification
    Board certification indicates that a physician has gone beyond basic licensing and met nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills in a specific medical specialty. Studies have shown that board-certified physicians provide higher quality care and have better patient care outcomes.
  • Teaching or lecturing at local universities or medical schools
    A number of experienced physicians serve as adjunct faculty or guest speakers at schools and medical conferences.
  • Special areas of expertise
    A primary care physician, for example, may have an interest in complementary therapies such as acupuncture. A gynecologist may specialize in treating the challenges of infertility or menopause.
  • Participation in research studies or clinical trials
    This may indicate that the physician is involved in the development of new and advanced treatments.

2. Which accredited hospitals does the doctor use?

“It’s important to consider what will happen if you need surgery or hospitalization,” says Dr. Schlitt. “You want to have as much faith in the staff caring for you in the hospital as you do in your physician.” Make sure your doctor admits patients to a hospital, clinic or surgery center that has undergone a rigorous on-site evaluation against established quality and safety standards, such as that provided by The Joint Commission. Also, verify that your insurance plan covers care at those facilities.

3. What is the physician-patient communication style?

The way your physician communicates with you can make the difference between a positive relationship and a frustrating one.

  • Some physicians tell patients exactly what to do, such as which medication to take, rather than discussing options with them. This is welcomed by patients who want the doctor to make all decisions about their care.
  • Others offer several options and make a recommendation. For example, “You can reduce the sodium in your diet or take medication to control your blood pressure. I would recommend the medication.”
  • Still others explain all of the treatment options, discuss the pros and cons of each, and leave the final decision up to the patient.

“The best fit depends on how involved the patient wants to be with his or her own care decisions, and how open the doctor is to the patient’s participation in those decisions,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Ideally, you want to find a good match.”

4. How does the physician’s office handle phone calls?

Ask what happens when a patient calls the office with a question. Most physicians cannot take calls during office hours when they are seeing other patients. They may be handled by a nurse or physician assistant, who can return the call sooner than the doctor. In some cases, physicians may answer questions by email after hours.

5. What if care is needed on short notice or after office hours?

In the case of a sudden illness or injuries, are last-minute appointments available? Some physicians will have another member of the care team — such as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner — accessible to handle such cases. Also find out who covers for the doctor after office hours. If there is no on-call physician, urgent or emergency care may be the only option.

“Knowing what to expect from a new physician can help build a stronger relationship, which can lead to higher satisfaction on both sides,” says Dr. Schlitt.

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