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Better Communication With Health Professionals

Choosing a Primary Care Doctor

When signing up for a new health insurance plan, most people in the US will be asked to choose their primary care doctor (even if it's a limited choice). The first, most essential questions are:

1. Are they taking new patients?

2. Will your insurance cover their services? If you have a "preferred provider" plan, an HMO or PPO, check whether they are on your health insurance's list of pre-approved providers. Or - if relevant - will they will accept Medicare, or MediCal / Medicaid?

3. Would you have to pay extra (higher co-pays, or out-of-pocket costs) to see them?

Choosing between option 1 & option 2, Wikimedia Commons

If those answers are "yes", then consider asking --

About staff in the office:

  • Where do they have hospital privileges (where you could see them if you need to be hospitalized)?
  • How many other doctors are in the practice?
  • Who will see you if your doctor isn’t available? Is that likely to be another doctor, or a Physician Assistant, or a Nurse?
  • Is anyone available to help manage your condition between visits ( like a diabetes educator, nurse practitioner, nutritionist, therapist)? What if you need a social worker, or patient care coordinator?

About appointments and office visits:

  • How long does it take, on average, to get an appointment? Are there delays or long waits to get an appointment?
  • What are the doctor's office hours / when are they at this office?
  • Do they offer evening or weekend appointments?
  • What is the appointment cancellation policy?
  • How long do appointments usually last?

About office facilities:

  • Is the office location convenient (is it nearby, with enough parking and/or close to public transit)?
  • Is there a lab on-site? Can you get routine tests done at that office, or do you have to go somewhere else?
  • If you need accommodations (easy wheelchair access, ASL interpreter, etc.), don't ask "what accommodations are available?". Instead ask "roughly how many patients do you see who need the same accommodations that I do?"
  • Does that doctor offer telehealth appointments? If so, are they on video, or telephone only?
  • How do they deal with patients who might be contagious?
  • If you are more comfortable speaking another language, is there anyone in the office who speaks that language?

About what's available in between office visits:

  • What kind of online website does the office have? Is there a site where you can see your records whenever you want? Can you make appointments, get lab results, communicate with the doctor, or ask for prescription refills online?
  • How does the office handle phone calls if you have questions? Will a nurse or physician assistant call you back?

About medical records:

  • Will you have to get copies of your medical records to bring to the new medical practice, or does it routinely handle transferring new patients' records?
  • Can you access your medical records online?


    Felice Beato, Japanese Doctor and Patient 1868 (Wikimedia Commons)

Need a Medical Specialist? Or a Second Opinion?

People with a serious  or chronic illness or a chronic condition are often referred by their primary care doctor to a specialist, who has more in-depth knowledge of that condition and is probably more up to date on diagnosis and treatment. If you have a choice of which specialist to see, ask:

  • How many patients with my condition(s) have they treated? Or if a surgical procedure is being considered, ask how many of these operations have they done, how recently, and what are their statistics for successful results?
  • What additional credentials do they have? Often a medical specialist would need to be Board-certified in relevant branch(es) of medicine, and will display their certification in their office.

Looking for a second opinion is essentially the same process - and the advice from these resource applies:

If you have to find a second opinion or medical specialist on your own, a good place to start are directories for medical specialty boards, and/or from well-respected medical centers. Often those are associated with a university medical school. In our area, both Stanford and UCSF offer second opinion services.

If you are concerned about potential bias in your health care team, or feel that professionals who are from a similar background would give better care, you can:

  • check the biographies of other doctors who are included in your health insurance for someone who might be more knowledgeable;
  • consult directories like the ones below to find doctors who specialize in caring for people in your community / minority.

Seeking a Therapist

If you feel that you’re in a crisis situation and need help quickly, please reach out ASAP to one of the hotlines or warmlines for a fast response. They may not be able to solve your issues completely, but they can definitely give you support and assistance while you’re looking for more long-term therapy. The hotline links on our Coping with COVID guide include many that existed before the pandemic and address more than just COVID-related issues.

If you have a primary care doctor you can trust, talk with them to see if they can make a specialist referral.  But be prepared for your primary care doctor to be just as clueless on how to go about finding the right person for you. It might take some time to find the right person, and that right person might not be among the list of referrals authorized by your health insurance, so don’t be discouraged if your doctor doesn’t have any direct recommendations for you.



Useful advice when seeking mental health support:

  • Decide whether you want to work individually, or whether the most troubling issues are in a relationship (couples therapy), or with family members (family therapy). 

  • Check with your insurance, with any EAP (employee assistance plan) available through work, and with county social service agencies to see if they offer referrals and financial support for talk therapy. especially for talk therapy or to couples / family counselors. Also check with local graduate schools that teach counseling psychology - many have lower-cost clinics, where therapy is conducted under the supervision of experts.

  • If you think you’d benefit from someone already familiar with your experience or your culture, search for someone who specializes in working with those clients. The links below from KQED, NAMI, Remezcla, and South Asian Therapists offer resources to identify those therapists.

  • If you already have a diagnosis (for example, on the autism spectrum, or anxiety disorder), do search for therapists with extra training for working with that condition.

  • And if it would be useful to be able to communicate in other languages besides English, definitely search for that too! 

  • Decide whether it would be better to see a therapist in-person, or via telehealth (if possible), or a combination of both.

The same questions apply when seeking a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, learning disability specialist, etc.

If you can identify some possible therapists to work with, Google them to find out their qualifications. Do check whether they have a therapist or counselor license, but  also check which kind of license, how recently they qualified, and whether they’ve had any extra certification that could be relevant for your therapy.

Then, interview them to see if a) they are accepting new clients at this time;  b) if you feel like a good fit for each other, and c) if you can afford their rates (or if they take your insurance).

Firing Your Doctor

Sometimes it's necessary to switch doctors to get better care. These resources can help determine whether that's appropriate, and give advice on how to make a switch with grace and continuity of care.

   Medical Marksman who "kills two birds with one stone" (Wikimedia Commons)

It is rare, but health professionals can also "fire" a patient for specific reasons.

About the Content in This Guide

We believe that being well-informed is key to taking better care of health (our own, and of our loved ones), and empowers us to work more effectively with our health care professionals. 

PlaneTree Health Library strives to guide the public to trustworthy, accurate, and free-to-use health and medical information. Links on these webpages have been chosen from authoritative and reputable non-commercial sites (nonprofit organizations, medical specialty groups, or government agencies). All of that information is freely accessible. We never link to advertisements and we avoid infomercials. 

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While PlaneTree Health Library strives to guide you to reliable, valid, up-to-date information, every person's situation is unique. Be sure to discuss information gathered from these resources with your health care providers to see if it is relevant to your individual situation. Health and medical information accessed through these websites is not intended to substitute for or to replace the advice or instruction of a health care professional. 

PlaneTree Health Library is not responsible for the content on web sites accessed from our site. Each originating organization has sole responsibility for its web pages. Our intention is to provide patients, their families, and caregivers with trustworthy information to help them make informed decisions.

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators or copyright holders.