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
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:
For more information about choosing a doctor, see the topic Choosing a Health Care Provider.
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
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.
Because health problems rarely
develop when it's convenient, it helps to have a doctor who can see you when
needed. Ideally, you want the best doctor you can find who is conveniently located and who belongs to your health plan.
Other things you may want to consider include:
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.
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.
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.
Don't worry about being thought of as a "difficult" patient. Asking questions is not being difficult—it's being an active participant in your own health 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
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.
This helps your doctor give you better care and helps both
of you make the most of the visit.
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:
When you're not feeling well or you're worried about your health, it's harder than usual to understand what a doctor is saying.
When there's something you don't understand, ask questions. Don't know how to ask? Try one or more of these suggestions:
Being in the hospital can be even more stressful than an office visit. And stress makes it even harder to process information.
If you think of questions when the doctor isn't there, write them down so that you can remember to ask them. This is important because your doctor may come by only once a day. Any questions you forget to ask might have to wait until the next day.
It can also help to have a friend or family member in the room when you expect your doctor or another provider to visit. This person can help you remember things you wanted to ask and may think of questions you haven't thought of.
When you're in the hospital, it may take extra effort to be an active patient and to communicate with all the different doctors, nurses, and other providers you will work with.
It's important to remember that even though you're in the hospital, you still have the ability to speak up and make decisions. But instead of just talking to your doctor in his or her office, you'll be talking to a variety of providers who come to your room.
Your main doctor in the hospital is called your attending physician. Your attending physician is like the head coach of your health care team. He or she is in charge of coordinating your care and making sure that all the players are doing their jobs.
If you're in the hospital for surgery, your attending physician might be your surgeon. If you're in the hospital for an illness, your attending physician might be your family doctor or a specialist you were seeing before you were hospitalized.
Or your attending physician might be a doctor called a "hospitalist." A hospitalist specializes in treating hospitalized patients and doesn't see patients outside the hospital.
Attending physicians check on their patients during daily "rounds." This is your attending physician's time to see how you are doing and answer your questions. Your doctor or your nurses may tell you what time of day you can usually expect rounds. But don't be surprised if your doctor comes much later than expected on some days.
Before you go into the hospital, you may want to ask your primary care doctor these questions:
Remember that doctors aren't on the job all day and all night every day of the week, so your attending physician may change on certain days. Find out who your attending physician is, and ask to be notified if that person changes.
During your hospital stay, you'll be cared for by a number of different health professionals, depending on the reason you're there.
The providers you'll see most are your nurses. They work in shifts, so you'll probably get to know three or more nurses during your stay. These men and women are a great resource. They're trained to help you know what's going on. If you have a question they can't answer, they will know how to help you get the answer.
For certain health problems, nurse specialists may be part of your treatment team. These are nurses who have special training about the health problem you're having.
Other health care providers you may meet include:
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.
This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website offers tips for how to partner with your doctor.
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.
Other Works Consulted
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (accessed November 2012). Questions are the answer: Better communication. Better care. Available online: http://www.ahrq.gov/questions.
Horowitz JA (2010). The therapeutic relationship. In CL Edelman, CL Mandle, eds., Health Promotion Throughout the Life Span, 7th ed., pp. 91–114. St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier.
Rakel RE (2011). Establishing rapport. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 146–165. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Ritter RH, et al. (2011). Interviewing techniques. In RE Rakel, DP Rakel, eds., Textbook of Family Medicine, 8th ed., pp. 166–175. Philadelphia: Saunders.
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.
Wallace M (2010). Older adult. In CL Edelman, CL Mandle, eds., Health Promotion Throughout the Life Span, 7th ed., pp. 619–647. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
February 25, 2013
Catherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
& Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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