Thinking about swapping physicians? Here’s what older adults need to know.
Like the song says, breaking up is hard to do. That includes saying so long to a doctor you’ve been going to for years. Sometimes, it’s the smart move.
Whatever the reason for the change, don’t dawdle. Make sure you find a new doc before you leave your old one. A 2016 study of Medicare enrollees showed that seniors with more continuity of care are less likely to use the emergency room—and that’s good for your health.
When should you consider making a switch? Here are five good reasons, plus a step-by-step guide to finding a new doctor.
Reason #1: Your Doctor Is (Often Unwittingly) Ageist
Sadly, it happens frequently. When health care providers dismiss an older patient’s headache or depression as “just part of getting older,” or when the doctor uses “elderspeak”—a demeaning version of high-pitched, singsong baby talk—that’s ageism at work, according to the American Society on Aging.
Sound familiar? It may be time to find a new doctor who is trained to work with—and respectful toward—older patients.
After all, it’s your health that’s on the line. In fact, ageism is linked with poorer health outcomes among seniors, according to a 2019 study in The Lancet. Of the nearly 8,000 patients surveyed, 25 percent reported experiencing age discrimination, and they were also more likely to develop serious health problems, including heart disease and stroke, over the course of six years.
Reason #2: Your Doctor Has Retired, Moved to a Different Practice, or Left Your Medicare Plan
“It used to be that doctors had their own practice and stayed put for decades,” says Kathryn Boling, M.D., a family medicine specialist with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “But that model has gone away, and now most doctors are employed by a hospital or a large medical group.”
Plus, if you have a Medicare Plan, such as Medicare Advantage (Part C), providers can join or leave a plan anytime, and plans can also change providers anytime. You can learn more in the official Medicare handbook.
The takeaway: Even if you’re happy with your current doctor, you may need to find a new one.
Received a notice that your current doctor may not be available to you in the future? Take the time to find a new one before you need to see one.
Reason #3: Your Health Coverage Has Changed
If you are joining a new Medicare Plan or recently moved, you may find yourself in a different health care network that doesn’t include the services of your current doctor. With any changes like these, check with your health plan for benefits and network information.
Or perhaps you recently enrolled in Medicare and your doctor doesn’t accept Medicare. The good news is many physicians do.
Reason #4: You Have a New Health Issue
Even if you’re in relatively good health, age can naturally bring some changes. For example, your body may metabolize prescription medications differently than when you were younger—which can put you at higher risk of side effects like balance problems and falls . A doctor who is trained in working with older adults, such as a geriatrician, may be better able to spot these kinds of issues than one who is not.
Or if you’re a woman who’s experiencing postmenopausal health changes and you’ve been going to a male doctor for years, you may decide that you’d rather be treated by a woman at this stage of your life, Dr. Boling notes.
“A lot of women feel that a male doctor just doesn’t understand what they’re going through,” she says.
For other people, a new diagnosis can mean you need to see a specialist for condition-specific treatment—and generally, the sooner you can get the right treatment, the better your health outlook. If you have heart disease, a cardiologist can help you manage your risk factors for heart attack and stroke. If you have diabetes, an endocrinologist can help you learn how to control your blood sugar.
Reason #5: Your Doctor Has Stopped Listening to You
It could be because of burnout. According to the American Medical Association, 44 percent of physicians experience a sense of emotional exhaustion from the stresses of practicing medicine.
That can lead to health consequences for their patients. Doctor burnout can result in lower quality of care, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
A poor doctor-patient relationship is one of the best reasons to switch providers, Dr. Boling says. “If you don’t feel connected to your doctor—or if you don’t trust them—you’re with the wrong provider.”
4 Steps to Find a New Doctor
No matter your reason for finding a new doctor, take these steps to make the transition as seamless as possible.
1. Ask Friends and Family Members for Recommendations
“Most of my new patients come to me through word of mouth,” Dr. Boling says. “Go on your neighborhood chat groups. Ask people, ‘Who’s your doctor? Who do you recommend? Do you feel listened to and heard?’”
Online reviews can be helpful too, but take them with a grain of salt, Dr. Boling advises. Those sound bites may not capture the full story. “I wouldn’t dismiss someone because of one or two bad reviews,” she says.
2. Check with Your Health Plan
If you have a Medicare Plan, such as Medicare Advantage, check with your plan for benefits information and to find doctors in your network. In many cases, you’ll want to stay in network. Seeing an out-of-network doctor may result in higher costs.
If you have Original Medicare (Parts A and B), you can find provider information on medicare.gov.
3. Request Your Medical Records
You may need to sign a release form with your old doctor’s office that allows them to share medical information with your new doctor’s office.
If you’re adding a doctor to your health care team—say, you need to see a cardiologist—you may also need to sign a form that allows your cardiologist to share your information with your primary care physician. Sharing information with all your doctors can help you avoid medication interactions or duplicate tests.
Leaving a doctor? A brief letter to your old doctor may be a good idea.
“If you think they did a good job and you’re leaving because of a move or an insurance change, it’s a nice gesture to send a letter saying thank you for the good care,” Dr. Boling says. “Or if you feel like you weren’t treated as well as you should’ve been, this may be an opportunity to mention your concerns.”
4. Make Sure Your New Doctor Is a Good Fit
Your first appointment with a new doctor is a good time to evaluate if it’s a good fit for you, Dr. Boling says.
Did you feel heard and respected? Did your doctor explain things to you clearly, and did you feel comfortable asking questions?
Of course, it may take some time to develop a good doctor-patient relationship. But if you noticed red flags right away—you felt dismissed, for example—don’t be afraid to trust your gut and look for other options.
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