Tips for picking the right primary care physician for your child
Whether you are a first-time parent looking for a doctor for your newborn or a parent of multiple looking to make a switch, finding a primary care physician that clicks well with your family can be a daunting task.
But it doesn’t have to be. Through talking with parents and pediatricians across the state, we have compiled eight tips to help you determine which doctor is best for your child.
Don’t procrastinate; start looking a few months in advance
Nobody likes to feel rushed to make important decisions, especially when it comes to a child’s health. That’s why it’s important to start looking for a doctor for your child months before their due date or, in the case of older children, months before they would first need an appointment.
Dr. Patrick Lehman, a pediatrician at Children’s Wisconsin Medical Group’s Bluemound Pediatrics in Brookfield, suggested parents expecting a baby start their search at least three to four months before their due date.
“If you have a baby one or two months early, it’s nice to be able to know that you have your pediatrician set,” Lehman said.
Decide whether you’d prefer a pediatrician or family practitioner
While pediatricians are trained to care for ages birth to 21, family practitioners treat patients of all ages, explained Dr. Laura Gallistel, a pediatrician at Bellin Health’s De Pere East clinic.
“I think some families like to have the same doctor for everybody, so that could be a benefit of having a family practice doctor because they can see the new baby, the mom, dad, grandma and grandpa. Other people like to have a more pediatric-specific doctor,” Gallistel said.
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MD or DO? Does it matter?
Some doctors are MDs, and others are DOs. Doctors of medicine and doctors of osteopathic medicine fulfill the same doctorly duties, but have undergone slightly different training. Osteopathic medical schools put more of an emphasis on the idea that “the whole body is connected,” said Gallistel, who is a DO. This might or might not influence a doctor’s approach, she said.
It is most important to ensure your child’s doctor, whether an MD or a DO, is board certified, Lehman said.
There are also pediatric internal medicine doctors, which are a rare breed in Wisconsin, Lehman said. He explained these doctors are board certified in both internal medicine and pediatrics, allowing them to continue to treat patients once they reach adulthood and not just when they are children.
Check out providers in your insurance network
Typically, doctors within your insurance network will cost much less than those out of network. Visiting your insurance company’s website and searching for your desired type of doctor can help you understand what your options are, and you can narrow down from there.
Consider any complex medical needs in your search
De Pere mom Nicole Abendroth cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your children’s specific medical needs top of mind when searching for a primary care doctor. Abendroth has young twins with health complications from being born prematurely.
“Sometimes it may seem easiest to pick a pediatrician that a friend’s child saw or maybe, if you have multiple children, simply (pick the one) you took your first child to see,” Abendroth said. “But … every kid is so different, so there’s a reason why not all pediatricians are one size fits all.”
Doctors often have online profiles that list specialties and special interests. Parents of children with specific medical needs or conditions can use this to help determine whether a doctor is the right fit for their child, Gallistel said.
It’s also important that you feel your doctor is well connected to resources in the community and is willing to connect with schools, therapists and more as needed, Lehman noted. Any physician should be confident in making referrals as needed, he added.
Even for children without complex medical needs, there might be a time when seeing a specialist is necessary. Because of this, it’s good to consider how referrals are handled, as well as what other services the care network can provide.
Seek recommendations from the community as well as doing online research
Talking to friends, family and others who live in the area about which primary care doctors they recommend can be a great place to start. Then, match their feedback with your family’s specific needs.
Many parents also rely on their existing medical connections for recommendations. Melanie Bradshaw, a Green Bay parent, found a doctor for her child through talking with her midwife. Many people start their search based on suggestions from their own doctors.
Abendroth found her twins’ pediatrician through talking with the occupational therapist they see through CP Inc. in Allouez.
As Gallistel mentioned, online research is also a must. In addition to doctors profiles’ listing their special interests online, they also may have informational videos.
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Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Gallistel and Lehman said many pediatricians offer multiple ways for prospective patients to get their questions answered, including “meet and greets.” Some do these virtually, while others will be at the doctor’s office.
“There really isn’t anything better than talking to the doctor personally,” Lehman said.
In an episode of Children’s Wisconsin’s Healthy Baby, Happy Parent podcast, Dr. Jerome Esser, a pediatrician with Children’s Wisconsin’s Mayfair Pediatrics office, said that while parents might be nervous to bring up topics like vaccines, antibiotics and breastfeeding, it is important to learn a doctor’s approach to the topics that are most important to them before deciding.
“As a pediatrician, I know that parents have all sorts of different parenting styles and different things that are important to them, and I want to work with them,” Esser said. “I’m not here to just give you my opinions on things and what you should follow. We want to work with you to be the kind of parent you want to be.”
If your culture requires certain dietary restrictions or otherwise influences medical treatment, be sure to bring that up with prospective doctors too, Gallistel said. A doctor’s personal background might be a factor in getting these needs met, Lehman said.
For families needing translation services, check what the health care system offers. For example, Children’s Wisconsin has interpreters who call in via tablet for pediatric visits, Lehman said.
Consider communication — both during and outside office hours
If a medical issue arises, parents and guardians want to make sure they can get advice in a timely manner.
De Pere mom Rebecca Hein said that makes flexibility in the office’s schedule a must.
A good question to also ask is “How are questions dealt with?” If you call the office, will you be able to speak with a nurse or doctor? What happens if you have a question after hours — how are messages handled and are you confident you will get an answer relatively quickly?
If your child’s primary care doctor is out of the office, is there another doctor who can step in, and are you comfortable with this?
At the end of the day, parents and guardians should play an active role in their child’s health, and finding a doctor who connects with both the child and adults in the family is essential.
“You know your child better than anyone,” Abendroth said.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member based at The Appleton Post-Crescent. To contact her, email [email protected] or call 920-993-7108. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to Report for America.