Choosing the right pediatrician is an important task facing every new parent and "choice" is the critical word.
Years ago parents didn't give it much thought. They chose the doctor in the neighborhood, or the one who their friends liked, or the one their obstetrician recommended. Today, many parents expect to actively participate in finding the right "fit" between their family and their pediatrician. He or she will help you understand some of the most important aspects of your child's health and may have a significant influence on your parenting style.
These days many practitioners understand the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, so they set aside office hours to be interviewed by expectant parents. Develop a list of three or four possible choices and make an appointment with each doctor. After making the appointments many new parents don't know what questions to ask.
Here's what I suggest: One of the most important things to try to understand is the pediatrician's philosophy. There are guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics that most pediatricians follow, but styles vary widely and can make a big difference in how comfortable parents feel. For example, how does the pediatrician feel about breast feeding? Many new mothers want to breast feed, but it isn't the right choice for others. How would the pediatrician handle this? What about circumcision? How about disciplinary issues? Is the practice focused on education and wellness? What kinds of educational materials do they use? What is their philosophy on medications? Some parents are very opposed to them, other are more comfortable. How does the pediatrician feel about complementary therapies? How does the pediatrician feel about second opinions and referrals to specialists? Is there a nurse or other health practitioner who can answer basic parenting questions between visits such as about constipation or excessive crying?
Some parents need a lot of guidance and reassurance. If that's your style, it's best to find a pediatrician whose practice provides that. When you're interviewing the doctor try to get a sense of his or her communication style. Is he or she a good listener? If you are a new parent, does the pediatrician seem patient with your questions? If not, this will probably continue after you deliver.
Ask about the doctor's training and experience. Does he or she have a particular area of interest or expertise? Is he or she board certified? Board certification indicates that the doctor has completed the necessary training and has passed a test of the basic knowledge needed in that specialty. There are also ongoing requirements to maintain certification. In general, board certification is more important than the school the doctor went to or whether he or she graduated with honors.
Next, think about how the practice runs. How long will it take the practice to answer your phone calls? Often parents may have their phone calls answered by someone other than the doctor. As a parent, are you comfortable with that? Can you expect to see the same doctor at every visit? How do they handle urgent visits for fever or other illnesses? Does the office staff seem friendly and competent? What is the typical wait time to get an appointment and how long can you expect to wait at a typical visit? Do they have office hours compatible with your schedule, for example, in the evenings and on weekends? What is the process if your child gets sick and you need an urgent appointment? Who is available at 3 a.m. if your child gets a fever and you need answers right away? Do they use e-mail and if so, for what kinds of issues?
If your child needs to be hospitalized, do you prefer a particular hospital? If so, does the doctor have admitting privileges at that hospital? If not, ask if a trusted colleague can handle an admission if necessary.
Finally, ask the pediatrician what he or she feels are the most important things for you to consider as you try to choose a doctor for your child. The answer may surprise you and will probably give you a lot of insight into the doctor's values and priorities.
Remember that your choice doesn't have to be final. Once you have your baby you may be surprised by how much your own priorities will change. If you and the doctor don't click, ask to have your records transferred to the number two person on your list.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.