How to Choose a Pediatrician: Your Essential Checklist

Choosing the right doctor can be overwhelming, but it's critical to find your kid's provider BEFORE they're sick. This checklist will help.

Looking for a pediatrician? Not sure if a pediatrician is even the right doctor for your child? If you’re a new parent – or moving to a new area – there’s a lot to consider. You want the best care for your child, but you don’t have endless amounts of time to devote to the hunt. That’s where this How to Choose a Pediatrician checklist comes in.

Before Kimmie was born, I made a list of questions to answer as we looked for the perfect-fit pediatrician for our family. I’ve expanded that list over time, as our girls have grown and I’ve seen other families’ struggles to find the right doctor for their child.

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 both make them feel comfortable AND give them better care over time. This checklist for finding the right pediatrician will help you make choosing the right doctor for your child a little easier.

orig published 20180917 republished for dif sp 20221005

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How To Choose The Right Doctor For Your Child

1. Pediatrician vs. family practice?

Not sure whether a pediatrician or family doctor is the best choice? The decision on whether to choose a family doctor or pediatrician may come down to where you live. If you’re in a remote rural area, you may have fewer choices than if you’re in the suburbs or an urban center.

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. The fact that their new home is in a remote area sealed the deal.

In our corner of suburbia, though, there are so many practices specializing in pediatrics (patients under 18) that it seemed crazy to choose anything but a pediatric practice for our girls. We’ve been thrilled with the age-specific care they’ve given our girls over the years.

Still not sure, or wanting the convenience of a one-stop-shop for your family’s medical needs? See if you can find a family practice with providers who specialize in pediatrics. A pediatric family doctor near you may be a good choice in this case.

2. Who’s in network AND accepting new patients?

Unless you live outside the U.S. where healthcare is nationally run, your next stop will be 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 kids are on a separate plan, start with their plan’s list of options.

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). As we’ve learned, sometimes insurance companies’ websites don’t have the most up-to-date information on this sort of thing.

3. Who actually works there?

Who is actually on staff at the practices you’re considering? The largest practice in town may not be the best choice, if your child sees a different doctor every visit. On the other hand, while nurse practitioners (NPs or CRNPs) and physician assistants (PAs) can handle many routine visits, a practice with only one actual doctor (MD or DO) may have a much harder time meeting your needs when complicated situations arise.

It’s also worth double-checking certifications. All the doctors at our girls’ pediatric 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. As a bonus, all of them are seasoned parents with years of experience parenting their own kids.

If you’re considering a practice with a healthy mix of doctors, PAs, and perhaps NPs, you’re probably in good hands. A practice with a single provider, or only doctors, could lead to scheduling problems. 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?

4. Is the doctor or pediatrician near me?

I cannot stress this enough.

We ultimately “interviewed” four pediatric practices before Kimmie was born, all within 5 miles of our house. We immediately ruled out two because in our crazy rush-hour traffic, it took us over a half-hour to reach them for our look-see appointment. As primary parent on duty, I’m the one who gets to schlep kids to and from doctor’s appointments most weekdays. The last thing I want is to waste an hour of my day 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). 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 driving past anyway – no special trips out of our usual path, let alone TWO special trips!

5. Do they pass the first-impression test?

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!)

When I was pregnant with Kimmie, in our area it was common to request interview appointments with the pediatric practices in our area. 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.

6. How’s their personality?

This should be another no-brainer, but whether you’re choosing a family doctor or a pediatrician, you want someone with the qualities that will make for a good fit when caring for your child.

Privacy laws in the United States mean that honesty and discretion should go without saying, but will the provider be able to empathize with what your child is feeling? Can they relate to kids? Do they seem approachable? These are all things you’ll need to try to suss out at your interview appointment. Listen to your gut feeling at each one of these appointments; if something rubs you the wrong way, for whatever reason, that practice is NOT the right one for your family.

Any medical provider should be a good listener, and never too rushed to answer your (or your child’s) questions. They should also be able to communicate with your child directly, seem friendly and approachable, and be able to put your child at ease.

7. 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 see them, perhaps try somewhere else.

8. 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.

9. Are their care options flexible enough for your family’s needs?

Before you commit to a medical provider for your child, you need to know whether their scheduling will work with your family’s emergencies and other commitments. 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 their waiting room is ALWAYS empty when you visit, that’s also a bad sign.

Especially since COVID, providers and insurance companies have expanded options for handling medical concerns outside of standard office visits. U.S.-based insurers are more likely to cover telemedicine appointments now than before the pandemic. Many practices also have online patient portals or nurse lines, where you can ask quick questions without having to make an appointment and bring your child into the office. Both of these options can save you the hassle of taking time off work to bring your child into the office.

Other features to look for are whether the practice you’re considering has walk-in hours, where your child can see a provider without a prescheduled appointment, and how easy it is to reach a provider outside of office hours. Our practice has someone on call 24/7, and we’ve called them more than once while traveling or on Sundays to help us manage acute medical situations where we couldn’t get into the office right away.

10. Are they on top of the latest medical developments?

As parents, it’s a good idea for YOU to stay up to date with the latest health news online – but does your potential pediatrician or family doctor do the same? This can be one of the harder questions to answer ahead of time, but trying to figure it out is still important.

I like to use the American Academy of Pediatrics as a reference when I’m looking for the latest consensus on, say, screen time for kids under two. If you’re up to date on the latest recommendations, but you sense during your interview appointment that the provider or practice is not, this is a big red flag that they might not be the right place for you.

Other ways you can determine this include checking out the overall vibe of the practice (a waiting room straight out of the 1970s can be another red flag), and asking at your interview outright what sorts of continuing education opportunities providers at the practice have. Also see if you can figure out how well your practice networks with other providers in your area and region. Whenever one of our girls has had a specialized need beyond pediatrics, whether nasal surgery or genetic testing, our pediatrician’s office has been able to refer us to the right specialist immediately, because they have working relationships with providers in other specialties both near and far.

The bottom line:

The more of these questions you can answer when trying to find a pediatrician or family practice, the easier it will be to find the right doctor for your child. 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.

What’s YOUR best advice for choosing the right doctor for your child? Let us know in the comments!

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21 thoughts on “How to Choose a Pediatrician: Your Essential Checklist”

  1. I’m glad you mentioned the importance of picking a pediatrician for your kids before they become sick. My husband and I want to make sure our two sons will get the care they need if they are ever sick. We’ll have to look for a pediatrician this week that is properly qualified and experienced.

  2. This is such a great post! We have been through a few family doctors. Unfortunately the hubs insurance is through the military which limits our options :/

  3. I think it is so important to find a suitable doctor for your children! It’s good to be picky because there are so many outstanding doctors out there!

  4. This all seems like such a stressful yet worthwhile process. Love the idea of “interviewing” to find the right doctor. SO important to find one you and your kids love!

  5. This is such an informative and well thought out post. I love that you pointed out how important a doctors bedside manner is. You can have the most intelligent and qualified doctor in the world, but if they don’t have the demeanor to make both you and your child feel comfortable – then they aren’t the right fit!

    1. ABSOLUTELY. This is something I learned firsthand from my own father (who was an old-fashioned country doctor). All my friends at school LOVED having him for their doc, which was a little weird, but I knew it was because of his excellent bedside manner with them – it’s something I’ve never since taken for granted!

  6. A good pediatrician is so important! My daughter was premature and between that and some other personal factors, we did not interview doctors ahead of time. The first doctor we got was all wrong for us. Currently we are using a practice attached to a major childrens hospital and moving to them was the best choice we could have made.

    1. I’m so glad everything worked out for you in the end! Between my own health concerns and selling two houses/buying one, interviewing is something we didn’t get to until late in the 3rd trimester with my first – I am so glad she was NOT early!

    1. LOL yes, this is something I recall from when my best friend Raiah lived in the UK – on this side of the pond, though, it can be a real nightmare!

  7. This is so helpful. I’ve been unhappy with my son’s pediatrician but have been hesitant to change. This post reminds me that I shouldn’t settle.

  8. SO SO SO much yes to this. We have moved so many times and had to find new dr’s for them and myself over and over. It’s so inportant to connect and have someone who really cares!

  9. This is so important! We went through a couple of doctors after moving to a new state before I found one I like and trust and that my boys like, too. Continuity of care has been a problem for my oldest with his eyes, he’s seen 4 different ophthalmologists in his 5 years now because of us moving, insurance issues, and doctors moving.

    1. I’m sorry there was so much upheaval until you found a good one, but hopefully you won’t have to go through any more changes for awhile! 🙂

  10. YES! This is so excellent, I hated my doctor as a child and really wish that my parents had listened to that. I think it’s so important that both connect. I love my current doctor so that makes up for years of a bad one!

    1. I’m so sorry you had such awful experiences when little, and glad that hasn’t turned you off of the medical profession altogether! Glad you have a much better doc now! 🙂

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