Parents have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders. Your children rely on you for food, safe housing, access to a good education, even day-to-day decisions from what they wear and eat, to who they hang out with. These responsibilities include finding the right doctor for your little one.
If you don’t have a regular doctor for your child yet, consider this: Yes, urgent care clinics and walk-in centers may be convenient. But what they offer in convenience, they lack in something even more important: continuity of care. Finding a regular PCP (primary care provider) for your child – whether a family practice or a pediatrician, someone who focuses specifically on kids 18 and under – will help your child get the best health care over the long run.
By getting to know your child’s unique medical history, your child’s PCP will help them feel at ease with each visit, as well as be tuned in to your child’s unique medical circumstances, such as what treatments have worked well for them in the past. This checklist will help you make choosing the right doctor for your child a little easier.
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How To Choose The Right Doctor For Your Child
1. Research your options
The first place you should start is with some directories of your options, based strictly on your health insurance plan. If you have private health insurance through your (or your spouse’s) employer, then your insurance company’s online directory of participating physicians/practices is the place to start. If your children are on a separate plan – say, the Children’s Health Insurance Plan of Pennsylvania – then you’ll begin your search with the online directory of CHIP doctors.
There’s no point skipping this step, unless you’re a gazillionaire and plan to pay for everything out-of-pocket. For the rest of us, getting your heart set on a provider who’s not in your covered network makes zero sense, because then you’ll end up paying most or all of your child’s medical expenses out-of-pocket anyway.
It’s not a bad idea to double-check with your prospective practice(s) to confirm that yes, they are participating providers with your child’s health plan (as well as that they’re open to new patients). Sometimes insurance companies’ websites don’t have the most up-to-date information on this sort of thing.
2. Who actually works there?
One thing you should look into early on is who actually works at the practice(s) you’re considering This is especially true if you’re moving to a new town. When my brother and his wife relocated for work reasons a month before my niece was born, they needed an OB/GYN, a new family doctor for both of them, and someone to take care of my niece once she arrived. For them, a family practice that could do all of these things was their best choice.
In our area, though, there are so many practices that specialize in pediatrics (patients under 18) that it seemed crazy to choose anything but a pediatric practice. All of the doctors at our practice are board-certified in pediatrics and members of the American Academy of Pediatrics; all of the PAs (physician assistants) are also board-certified and have extensive experience in pediatric medicine, plus hands-on experience parenting their own many kids over the years.
If you’re considering a practice that has a healthy mix of doctors, PAs, and perhaps NPs (nurse practitioners), you’re probably in good hands. A practice with a single provider, or only doctors, could lead to scheduling problems, in my experience. The same is true of a practice with a single doctor and a fleet of NPs and/or PAs. Often, NPs and PAs have to get doctors to sign off on their prescriptions – not a good thing when your sick kid needs an antibiotic that you hope to pick up on the way home.
It’s also important to strike a balance between “too small” and “too big.” If your child develops a rapport with one or two providers in particular, how easy will it be to schedule an appointment with your child’s fave provider(s)? And in a large practice, how well do the practitioners coordinate among each other, so that every time you see a new provider, you don’t have to start from scratch with your child’s complete medical history?
3. Location, location, location
I cannot stress this enough. We ultimately “interviewed” four pediatric practices before Kimmie was born, all within 5 miles of where we live. We immediately ruled out two of them because in our crazy rush-hour traffic, it took us the better part of a half-hour to reach them for our look-see appointment. Since I am the primary parent on duty, schlepping kids to and from doctor’s appointments in the middle of weekdays when they’re sick, the last thing I wanted is to have an hour of my day killed by being stuck in traffic to and from the doctor’s office.
One factor that led us to the girls’ pediatrician is that they’re literally one mile from our house. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve called with a sick child and they’ve said “Can you come now?” and I’ve replied “I’ll be there in five minutes tops”! Or how many times I’ve had an emergency, showed up with a critically ill kiddo on their doorstep, and had them either squeeze us in then and there, or tell us when they COULD squeeze us in (usually in an hour or so, giving me enough time to pop across the street to the grocery store to stock up on foods appropriate to sick kiddo’s condition). It’s much harder to “pop in” or “pop over” like this when it takes you more than a few minutes to get there.
And then there are those times when we’ve needed, say, a medical form for school. It is SO convenient to drop off the form one day on the way by, and pick it up the next day since we’re going by there anyway – no special trips out of our usual path, let alone TWO special trips!
4. Check them out
The ideal time to choose the right doctor for your child is BEFORE they get sick! (My friend Renée learned this the hard way last year when her eldest got bitten by a tick, about 12 months after they’d moved to our area, and she hadn’t quite found a doctor for her kids yet!)
I don’t know if this works for family practices, but I know that when I was still pregnant and we were considering pediatric practices, it was a common thing to call the practice and ask if you could have an interview appointment with one of the providers. All you have to do is explain that you’re about to become a parent and are trying to find the right doctor for your child, and you’d like to meet with a practitioner to learn more about their office and their team.
There is generally no charge for these appointments, and they will often slot you in right before the lunch hour, or perhaps at the end of the business day. Both parents should attend if at all possible. Some larger practices may instead tell you when their next “open house” night is for prospective patients’ families.
Keep your eyes and ears open at these appointments, and think about the vibe you’re getting from the moment you walk in the door. We’d pretty much ruled out one practice after it took us so long to get there, but their giving us formula samples as we arrived (when we really wanted to go the breastfeeding route) clinched it for us. The practice we ultimately chose was not only closest to our house, but also was the only one that felt like it was geared toward KIDS instead of their parents. All the others had waiting rooms and exam rooms that looked like any other doctor’s office, But ours has kid-appropriate toys, books, magazines, and wall decorations throughout the entire facility.
5. Does your child like them?
If you’re relocating and choosing a practice for kids who are no longer in utero, then your kids should have a say in who’s the right doctor for them. The older the child, the more you should take their vote into consideration.
Because my father was an old-fashioned country doctor, he and his partner-of-the-moment took care of me until I was 13, when my dad retired. After that, my 12-year-old brother and I needed our own pediatrician for the first time in our lives. The guy we chose, the moment we saw him, wore blue jeans around the office. This was the total opposite of our father (a suit-and-tie, old-school kind of guy) – but we figured that a doctor who wore blue jeans to work could relate to teenagers, and talk straight to us. (We were absolutely right.)
So talk to your child about their impressions, and what they want out of their doctor, in age-appropriate ways. They might even come up with their own questions for their “interview” with the doctor. If it’s a family practice you’re considering, and all goes well, this practice could even be with your offspring as they prepare for the birth of their own first child.
And if your child is too little to give you verbal feedback along these lines, watch for smiles and relaxed body language. If you don’t get them, try somewhere else.
6. How’s their bedside manner?
Children aren’t always the best judges of character. A few cooing sounds should win them over, but that doesn’t mean this doctor is any good – or is the right provider for your kiddo.
As parents, it’s up to you to consider the general manner of both the provider(s) you see, and the overall practice. Do you feel as if they’re rushing you? Or that they’re not really listening, to what you and/or your child has to say? Are they talking to your child in age-appropriate ways, or are they ignoring your child and talking only to the grown-ups?
Providers can be abrupt and rushed at times, but this should not be an every-visit occurrence, and certainly shouldn’t happen during an interview appointment. Providers who ARE this way can miss symptoms, especially if they haven’t seen your child before or are unfamiliar with your child’s medical history.
Another thing to watch for, when you’re there for an actual appointment vs. an interview, is how much time they spend actually examining your child compared to how much time they spend on their computer. Some medical providers make the mistake of typing out notes, rather than taking the time to look at their patients. If you notice any of these warning signs, they are reasons to think long and hard about whether this is the right practice for your family and/or your child.
7. What happens when you need to see them ASAP?
Ultimately, this is as important as how easy it is to reach the practice from where you live. Before you commit to a medical provider for your child, you need to know whether they’ll be able to see you when your child needs to see them.
Signing your child up with a doctor who’s always busy is bad for obvious reasons. When your kiddo is sick, you need a provider who can see them ASAP – not late next week. And when it’s time for their two-month well-baby check, you shouldn’t have to schedule that appointment before the child is even born! On the other hand, if there NEVER seems to be anyone else in the waiting room at a practice, that’s also a warning sign.
Some of these things you’ll only be able to figure out when your child is actually in acute need of an appointment with a provider. But you can try to determine some of these things ahead of time by researching their website, reading reviews, and asking outright at the interview appointment. We were happy to find out that our practice has a provider on call 24/7 to handle urgent questions, even when the office was closed. They’ve correctly told us when traveling what required an urgent-care clinic and what could wait until we were home; they’ve done the same on Saturday nights and Sundays when we had a sick kid and didn’t know what to do. They’ve also given timely over-the-phone advice and arranged for follow-up care when the office reopened on Monday morning.
Another thing you might investigate is what the practice’s policy is on walk-in hours. My own PCP office has one provider on duty every morning for walk-in appointments with established patients. Though the girls’ pediatrician does not have the same outward policy, it’s rare that they haven’t been able to see my children the same day when they are acutely ill.
What’s your best advice for choosing the right doctor for your child? Let us know in the comments!