Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on February 3, 2011
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
Picking a pediatrician is one of the most important jobs of parenthood. After all, this is the person to whom you're going to bring your sick child. You want them to make the right diagnosis and provide the right treatment. But it's more than that. If you find the right pediatrician, he or she can be your guide and companion on the wonderful, overwhelming journey of parenthood.
How do you find that person? The choice of a pediatrician is a very individual one because each family's journey is different. Add to that factors, such as insurance coverage, office hours, location and practice type (group, solo, health center)... and it can be difficult to know how to begin, especially if you don't have a medical background.
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Six Key Questions To Answer
Begin your search well before you need to make an actual choice, such as midway through a pregnancy or at least a couple of months before moving. Think about the kind of doctor you would ideally like. For example:
- Do you want a pediatrician (a doctor who specializes in the care of children), a family practitioner (a doctor who takes care of people of all ages), or a nurse practitioner (a nurse who is trained and licensed to see patients like a doctor does)?
- Does it matter if the doctor or health care professional is a man or a woman? Would you like them to be a parent themselves? Would you prefer a younger, more energetic person or someone who is older and has more experience?
- Does it matter if the practice is big (with possibly more resources and longer office hours) or small (allowing you to get to know all the doctors and vice versa)?
- Do you need the office to be close by, or are you willing to travel a bit if you like the doctor/practice?
- Do you have a child with special health care needs? If so, you'll need a doctor with some expertise in those needs.
- What aspects of health and/or parenting do you feel strongly about and want help with? For example, breastfeeding (sadly, not all doctors know a lot about breastfeeding) or complementary/alternative medicine?
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Once you've answered these questions and written down your "wish list," you're ready to gather names:
- Check your health insurance to find doctors within your plan.
- Ask around. Get recommendations from friends, neighbors and colleagues. There are two caveats to keep in mind, however. First, because everyone's preferences are different, talk to people who would seem to share your preferences. Second, there can be a herd mentality sometimes everybody goes to Dr. Jones for no other reason than because everybody goes to Dr. Jones.
- Use the Internet. Many practices have websites, and some have "bios" of their staff. Also, you can search the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians for certified doctors in your area.
- Check to see if the doctors you are interested in are accepting new patients. Here's an insider tip, though: Doctors who officially aren't accepting new patients will sometimes make exceptions if you approach them directly.
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Finding a Good Match
Now that you have your wish list and a list of possible names, meet each doctor and visit the office. If the doctor can't or won't meet with you, or at least talk to you on the phone, that tells you something! Be mindful that they may not have a lot of time, so ask your most important questions first. Here are some things to take note of or ask:
- First impressions are important. Is the waiting room inviting and clean? Are there lots of health education materials available? Is the staff pleasant and helpful? Most important, is the doctor warm, welcoming, and interested in you and your questions?
- Ask the doctor about their general approach to caring for children and working with families. The question will likely be a little unexpected and the answer may be very revealing.
- If you need the doctor to have specific expertise, ask that up front. If your child has disabilities, let the doctor know. Some doctors are more comfortable with complicated medical issues than others.
- Ask how the doctor approaches those specific health and parenting issues that are important to you.
The logistics of a practice can make a difference. Here are some other questions to ask the doctor or a staff member. Take notes if that helps you remember.
- How easy is it to get an appointment for either a sick visit or checkup? Would you always be able to see your regular doctor?
- How long are the appointments and what's the typical wait time when you have one?
- Who do you talk to if you need medical advice?
- What if you need medical advice when the office is closed?
- What are the office hours? Where would you go if your child needs to be seen after hours?
- Does the practice have on-site laboratory and X-rays services? If not, where would you go?
- If your child needs to be admitted to the hospital, which hospital would it be?
- If your child needs to see a specialist, to which specialists does the practice refer?
This may seem like a lot to do and ask. It is, I admit. But this approach will give you the best chance of finding the best doctor for you and your child someone who is the guide and companion you both deserve.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.