Choosing Your Children’s Health-Care Provider
One of the most important decisions a family makes is choosing a health-care provider for parents and children. Carefully considering a number of factors, both practical and personal, will help you make the decision that’s right for your family.
Here are some tips to simplify your search:
* Request referrals. If you are new to the community or having your first child, ask friends, family members or your obstetrician’s office for a recommendation. A trusted source that is familiar with the community is ideal.
* Consider location. Think about where you live and work. Infants and toddlers require frequent check-ups, and when you have a sick child, you want to be as close as possible to your medical office.
* In network or out? Determine whether a medical practice accepts your family’s health insurance. Your insurer’s website or information packet will list providers in your area; check to be sure that you have the most up-to-date list. While it may be permissible to go to an out-of-network physician, your out-of-pocket costs may be substantially higher. If you do not have health insurance, find out about local health departments or medical clinics that offer sliding-scale fees based on family income, which can help lower the cost of your family’s medical care.
* Meet the doctor. Once you narrow your options, call the practices or clinics you are considering and see if you can meet with a member of the medical staff. “When trying to decide on where to take your children, you can contact potential practices and inquire if a visit to meet one of the physicians and check the office out is offered,” says Dr. Hugh Craft, a pediatrician and former president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Virginia. “Many practices offer this free of charge.”
* Consider the size and scope of the practice. Ask how many physicians are in the practice, since you may see different doctors when your child is ill. Also ask how the staff shares night and weekend calls.
* Check to see if there are separate sick and well waiting rooms to help reduce potential exposure to illness when taking your child into the office for a well-child exam. Many practices also offer some walk-in hours for sick visits.
Physician and staff education and certification
You many want to decide whether to choose a pediatrician for your children and a different physician for yourself or select a family practitioner to provide care for the entire family. The difference between these two types of physicians centers on residency training after medical school. Both pediatricians and family physicians complete four years of medical school and a minimum three-year internship and residency program. Residents in family medicine learn about health issues for adults and children, while pediatric residents focus solely on children during postgraduate training.
The American Academy of Family Physicians website defines family medicine as, “the medical specialty which provides continuing, comprehensive health care for the individual and the family. It is a specialty in breadth that integrates the biological, clinical and behavioral sciences. The scope of family medicine encompasses all ages, both sexes, each organ system and every disease entity.”
Physicians can become board-certified in family medicine and in pediatrics, as well as in other specialties, such as obstetrics and gynecology. Board certification means the doctor has completed a training program approved by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education and passed a written and oral board exam in the specialty. State medical board websites provide information about the education and board certification of physicians licensed to practice in that state (www.ncmedboard.org for North Carolina).
While family medicine doctors spend specific periods working with adults and children during training, pediatric residents “spend at least three years learning about and caring for children of all ages,” Craft says. “This allows time to become familiar with the full spectrum of child health issues. Most pediatric practices provide care from birth to ages 18 to 21,” he notes, and pediatric training programs include a focus on health issues common to the late teens and early 20s. Training programs in both family medicine and pediatrics require resident physicians to care for patients in a variety of settings, including outpatient clinics and hospitals.
Nurse practitioners also provide medical care in many physicians’ offices. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have completed additional training, obtaining a master’s degree in nursing. Many nurse practitioners work in a pediatric or family practice to provide care in collaboration with a supervising physician. Physician assistants also work under the supervision of a physician.
There are many options for high-quality medical care for your family, provided by well-trained health-care providers. Consider the factors that are most important to you, whether it is the size of a practice, its location, or where and how its physicians and other medical personnel have received their training, then feel confident that you and your family will be well cared for during illnesses and in good health. n
Katherine Kopp is a freelance writer and editor in Chapel Hill with a special interest in health and medicine. She and her husband have three daughters.