Sometimes, whether we plan to or not, we have to stop visiting our current primary care provider (PCP) and begin seeing a new one. You might have moved to a new area. Your insurance company may no longer partner with that particular provider. Your provider may retire or move away. You may feel that your provider doesn’t communicate well or you may never have fully felt comfortable with your current provider. Or, you may simply be unhappy with the service you’ve received.
Whatever the case, there are a few things to remember about how to change doctors. We spoke with Mohan Nadkarni, MD, who gave us some tips for a smooth transition.
1. Schedule One Last Visit With Your Current Provider
During this final visit, you should discuss your health conditions, medications and any other concerns with your provider. Take notes. This will give you a snapshot of your current health for your new healthcare provider.
However, if a final visit isn’t possible, or you’re leaving your provider because you’re unhappy, this step isn’t necessary. And, it’s up to you if you want to discuss your reasons for leaving with your provider. “It doesn’t have to be a confrontational thing,” says Nadkarni. “Sometimes, you’re just not as satisfied as you would like or you’re looking for something different.”
2. Look for Your New Provider Before Leaving the Current One
Before formally ending your relationship with your current doctor, take time to find new candidates. You don’t want to be left without a provider should you need one.
First, consider what you need from your PCP. “What sort of things do you want help with? Do you have particular conditions that you need to know how to take care of? Or are you mainly there for preventive health?” prompts Nadkarni.
Ask your friends, family members or other folks about the healthcare providers you’re considering. Ask for recommendations. “The best resources are friends who are using that doctor. Ask what they like about the provider,” says Nadkarni.
Your current provider could also give a recommendation. “Absolutely,” states Nadkarni. “I’m happy to provide recommendations based on folks I know. And it’s a very reasonable question, particularly if you’re leaving the area, to ask your doctor, ‘Knowing me as a patient, who might you recommend?’”
Check the hospitals where your potential providers are affiliated. “Each hospital has its own directory of physicians,” reminds Nadkarni. “From that list, you can ask folks about doctors and see what responses you get.” A similarly useful tool is the American Medical Association’s DoctorFinder. This online directory provides information about nearly every licensed physician in the U.S. To help with your decision, you should review the list of healthcare providers connected to your current health insurance.
Local or national medical groups can provide help, too. “If you have disease-specific questions, you can check in with local and professional organizations, like the Jefferson Area Board on Aging, or the American Diabetes Association local chapter. They will have a list of doctors.”
How About Doctor Ratings?
You may also consider checking out a physician rating website, like HealthGrades, to review patient comments. However, Nadkarni cautions against only using these ratings to make your choice. “You never really know why someone may be unhappy with their provider. But, they can be useful if you see comments like, ‘This doctor doesn’t communicate well,’ and it’s a repeated theme. If it’s just one comment, I don’t think that’s indicative of the whole practice.”
Be sure to consider other aspects of visiting this provider, such as travel time and scheduling policies. “Find out the best way to access this physician. Is it through phone, email or MyChart?” says Nadkarni.
In fact, you may want to visit your new provider before entirely ending your relationship with the old one. Nadkarni encourages people to take their time. “It’s so there is easy transfer of records and results; it’s important.”
3. Get Your Medical Records
Obtain either paper or electronic copies of your medical records. You could also have them sent directly to the office of your new provider. Be sure these include the results of any lab work, imaging or other tests you’ve had. “It’s a very straightforward process, just a signature on a form,” says Nadkarni.
You’ve visited several different providers during your life — how far back should you go? “It depends on the level of complexity of the patient and what problems they have,” states Nadkarni. “If the patient is relatively healthy, I barely need anything as long as the patient can relay their basic information. It’s important for me to know their major medical problems and any major surgeries they may have had. I definitely want to know what medications they are taking, and a good family history is important as well. I don’t need to know every tiny detail.”
What if you can’t get your medical records? Nadkarni says not to worry. “Having a good knowledge of yourself and your medical history is most important. If you can tell me you have high cholesterol but not the actual number, that’s OK, we’re going to wind up checking it and seeing where you are at that time anyway. Knowing your allergies and knowing your medications are probably the two most important things. I can pretty much piece together a lot about your medical history based on the medications you are on.”
Do Keep Your ER Summaries
However, Nadkarni does recommend keeping a summary of your emergency room visits. “Oftentimes, it’s helpful for me to know if you’ve been to the emergency room, to know what they’ve done. There is usually a handout they give you when you’re discharged from the emergency room. It’s helpful to keep those.”
4. Have Your First Visit with Your New Provider
At your first visit, you’ll review your medical history, discuss your current medications and conditions and explore your health concerns.
“As a primary care provider, if a patient has already been under someone else’s care, it’s nice to know what focus they want,” says Nadkarni. “I like to ask, ‘What did you like about your last provider? What did they do well?’ That way I, as a provider, can know what you are expecting. What are you expecting, what are your fears, what do you want me to do for you? It’s just setting mutual expectations. And, as a doctor, I like to know what my patient’s communication style is.”
Nadkarni recommends that you ask as many questions of your new provider as you need. “Interview your doctor; you want to see if you develop any rapport. Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions. There are good studies that show that patients who ask more questions are more engaged and have better outcomes. As a physician, I like it when a patient asks me questions.”
Not comfortable enough to ask questions? Take it as a sign, Nadkarni advises. “You want to be with someone who makes you comfortable asking questions.”
5. Take Time After Your First Appointment to Reflect
Review the conversations you had with your new provider and carefully think about the following:
- Did this provider give me clear answers to my questions? Did they make sure I understood?
- Did this provider listen to my concerns?
- Was this provider courteous and respectful?
- Was I comfortable during this visit? Were efforts made to make me feel comfortable?
- Did this provider make any similar missteps as my old provider?
Remember to keep in mind any other questions that may be important to your PCP experience.
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If you’re not sure you’re happy with the answers to these questions, you don’t need to make a firm commitment. “Just like people you meet in a crowd, you’re going to get along better with some people and not others. You don’t have to commit to them for life,” laughs Nadkarni.
Continue to search for a new provider if you aren’t satisfied. Making the switch shouldn’t leave you with the same problems you had before, or give you a new set of problems. Although it may take a little time, having a great relationship with your doctor gives you a valuable reward: continued good health.