What to do when you need to change doctors

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What to do when you need to change doctors

Breaking up is hard to do, even when – or especially when – it’s with your doctor.

Your doctor is kind of a big deal. They know a lot about you and your family and you depend on them for your well-being. But sometimes you need to move on. Maybe you’re moving, maybe your child has outgrown her pediatrician, maybe you don’t like your doctor’s bedside manner. Whatever the case...well, it happens.

Before you make the big switch, though, there are a few things you need to take care of to make sure your change is as seamless as possible and you don’t leave yourself without a doctor for yourself or your family.

Finding a new doctor

One "don’t" on this list of "dos" is don’t leave your doctor without having a new one in mind. Doctors will typically keep seeing patients for emergency cases for 30 days if they know you’re looking into other options, but after that you might have a hard time scheduling something and they might refuse to treat you.

So how do you find that new doctor? As mentioned above, you might ask your current one for recommendations. Barring that, you have a few options.

Get references from friends and family

The tried and true method to finding anyone from a landscaper to an electrician to, yes, a doctor. Tap your personal network to see who your friends, family, and coworkers use as their doctor. The upside to this is that you can judge a doctor pretty well by seeing how people you already know think of them. You know your friends and family’s temperament, the kinds of interactions they enjoy, and what pushes their buttons. It’s a quick way to get a feel for a doctor from someone who’s already a patient and, more importantly, whose opinion you trust.

Research online

The alternative to asking real people is asking online people. You research TVs, cars, and restaurants online, so why not your doctor?

One place to start is the American Medical Association’s (AMA) DoctorFinder tool. It’s pretty straightforward: Put in the specialty you’re looking for and your location, and that’s basically it. You can see AMA member doctors as well as nonmember doctors, the main difference being that there’s more information available for member doctors, like where they performed their residency and their certifications.

But that only gives you basic information. If you want more opinion-based feedback, try sites like ZocDoc, Healthgrades, or even Yelp. Not only can you see information about the doctor, but their Amazon-like reviews give you upfront information straight from patients themselves.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re looking at online reviews, though, is that you’re seeing opinions of people who feel very strongly one way or the other about a particular doctor. Their experience, whether it was great or terrible, might not be representative of the average customer, so take it with a grain of salt. They can be good starting points, but make sure you do due diligence and visit the office itself to ask questions. Some suggestions are:

  • What’s the average wait time?
  • How long has the staff been there? If there’s a lot of turnover, that might be a red flag.
  • What are the cancellation and rescheduling policies like? You may be charged if you don’t give enough warning that you won’t be able to make an appointment.

Check with your insurer

The number one thing you don’t want to happen when you’re switching doctors is to go through all of the research, the awkward breakup with your doctor, and the awkward beginning with your new doctor...and then find out they aren’t in your insurance network.

While you’re researching new doctors, make sure you know what your health insurance plan type is. For instance, a PPO will let you see any provider you want, but an HMO only allows you to see providers who are directly in your network; an EPO is sort of a hybrid plan where you can go outside of your network but those providers won’t be covered. And then there are certain restrictions for people on Medicare.

To sum up, double and triple check that your new doctor is in-network if that’s all your plan allows. If and when you find a doctor you like, check with the doctor and your insurer to make sure they’ll be covered. Use the full name of your plan, not just the company; just because you have "Aetna" doesn’t necessarily mean the doctor will be in-network. And be careful: your doctor’s network changes all the time, either because the insurer drops them or they drop the insurer. Don’t be surprised if, down the line, you have to make another change for this reason.

You can combine these last two steps by searching for a doctor online using your insurer’s site. Most insurers will allow you to search for a doctor, like with Blue Cross Blue Shield’s National Doctor and Hospital Finder. It’s mostly the same as using a third party site, but it can make a little easier to make sure you’re in the right network.

Telling your current doctor

You don’t have to tell your doctor you’re leaving. There’s no legal requirement to let them know you’re switching. But there are a few reasons why you might tell them.

Maybe you want their recommendation. If you’re parting on good terms, it doesn’t hurt to ask your doctor if they have any suggestions for new doctors. This can be especially helpful if you’re moving and don’t know anyone who can give you a personal reference. Your doctor might be able to recommend a colleague to cut down on your search time.

Or it could just feel like the right thing to do. Relationships with doctors are no small thing, and you might just want to tell your soon-to-be-former doctor why you’re leaving. If it’s because of something they did, they might like to know so that they don’t make the same mistake in the future. Or if they didn’t do anything wrong, in an "it’s not you, it’s me" situation, that’s good to know, too.

But before you say goodbye to your old doctor forever, the most important thing to do is make sure you get your medical records. They’ll be useful in catching your new doctor up with all of the goings-on with your health. This includes medical history, prescriptions, tests, and so on.

Since a lot of doctors still either aren’t using electronic health records or don’t want to deal with the headaches they cause, you’ll have to request them and probably get a printout. Luckily, this should be pretty easy. All you have to do is ask; you may even be able to get your new doctor’s office to request them for you if you’re not comfortable doing so. You may be charged a "reasonable" fee for getting your records which varies but is usually around $20, and your doctor has 30 days (with a 30 day extension) to get you your records. Once you have them, just take them to your new doctor so they can pick up where your old one left off.

Changing doctors might not be ideal, but with a little planning, it doesn’t have to be a headache. Cover your bases when it comes to wrapping things up with your current doctor and choosing your new doctor to make sure you aren’t unprotected for long.