Your doctor of many years is hanging up his or her stethoscope. How do you find a new doctor and manage the transition?
You saw the signs. You should have seen it coming. But then, here it is in black-and-white, the letter making the breakup official. “Dr. X regrets to inform you that s/he is retiring after 40 years of practice. Dr. X is sorry to go, has enjoyed taking care of you and wishes you the best of health moving forward.”
It may leave you in a frantic quandary: How do you find a new doctor, one as good as this beloved primary care doctor (or your favorite specialist)? Or, alternatively, how you do find a new doctor when you’re dissatisfied with the one you have?
In either case, action—immediate action—is crucial, according to the experts we interviewed.
“Find your new doctor before exiting your old doctor,” says Trisha Torrey, founder of the Alliance of Professional Healthcare Advocates and, more recently, of Every Patient’s Advocate. She wrote “You Bet Your Life: Mistakes Every Patient Makes.”
Even though your current doctor may not actually exit for a couple months, don’t delay, she says, as the necessary pre-exit actions take time.
If you are in a large healthcare system, your doctor may refer you to a partner or other colleague. Your insurance provide may also provide you with a list of other doctors in the network, says Caitlin Donovan, senior director of the Patient Advocate Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Hampton, VA, offering case management and financial assistance to those with chronic, life-threatening diseases.
Do Your Research
Still, do some of your own research. Many people ask friends for suggestions, then find out too late that the doctors they suggested don’t accept their insurance. Torrey says, “I say, start with your insurance, and then ask your friends.”
As you’re working your way through the list of potentials, be sure you can get access to your medical records so they can be transferred. Sometimes a letter telling you about the retirement or move will include an authorization form you can return to them for release of medical records.
Transferring records seems simple in this digital world, but it’s not always, Torrey says. Her suggestions: work ahead; get a thumb drive and take it to your retiring doctor’s office and ask them to download it. “Keep your own copies, too,” Donovan says, once you’ve transferred them.
As you narrow down the list of candidates, what else?
- Study the reviews. Torrey suggests scrutinizing them in a way that might be new to you. “You are not looking for someone who is nice,” she notes. “Nice doesn’t always equal competent.” If a doctor got 5 stars, for what? Office cleanliness? Friendly staff? What about the quality of patient care, callback times, and other crucial information?
- Read the negative ones, too. Donovan was searching for a new doctor and found a negative view that sealed the deal for her. “A disgruntled patient was complaining she didn’t want to take the COVID vaccine,” she remembes, and this doctor wouldn’t give her an exemption. Donovan read further, and found out the patient was a hospital nurse and had offered no reason she couldn’t get the vaccine. The doctor’s refusal to grant an exemption convinced Donovan this doctor shared her views.
- Be aware of the shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, by 2034, there may be up to 124,000 fewer doctors available. Pandemic burnout took its toll. A survey of more than 3,500 doctors by the Physician Foundation found that 8% closed their practices due to COVID. So a doctor you want may not be accepting new patients. If that’s the case, Torrey suggests: Contact your previous doctor, if possible, and see if he or she will ask the new doctor to accept you as an exception.
- Think about the practical aspects, Donovan says. For her, proximity is important, as she doesn’t have time to drive 45 minutes to an appointment.
- Ask the questions important to you: How does your office communicate between appointments? Is it possible to email questions between appointments? Do you offer virtual appointments? What is the doctor’s approach to medical conditions—treat quickly with medication or try lifestyle or other approaches first? How do you handle prescription refills?
- At the First appointment: Notice if your styles mesh. Donovan says she likes a no-nonsense approach, but also likes ‘’someone who will get chatty with me.” Others may need the opposite, perhaps a little coddling but no small talk.
It’s very likely that all of us, at some future point, will get a farewell letter from our long-time medical professional. Acting quickly, obtaining records and doing research are key to a smooth transition.
What happened when your doctor or specialist retired? Share your experience or tips in the comments!
Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based independent journalist, specializing in health, behavior, fitness and lifestyle stories. Besides writing for Senior Planet, she reports for WebMD, Medscape, Psycom.net, Practical Pain Management, and other sites. She is a mom, mother-in-law and proud and happy Mimi who likes to hike, jog and shop.
Doheny photo: Shaun Newton
This article offered by Senior Planet and Older Adults Technology Services is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency call 911 immediately.
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