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How to Change Pediatricians

Laura Moss

When Jennifer Aaronson, 41, a magazine editor and mom to two in Manhattan, was pregnant with her first child, she did what every baby book tells you to do: she interviewed doctors and found one she thought was a good fit. “We knew we were having a boy, and my husband wanted a male pediatrician, so we found this guy who was the head of whatever, had an impressive resume and seemed totally fine in the interview.” But it wasn’t long before Aaronson left her doctor visits feeling the doctor was “brushing us off like ‘you silly first-time parents.’” 

When Aaronson’s son Gio was just nine months old and had a constant cough, she knew something was wrong. She brought him in before a trip away from home, and her doctor said, “He’s fine, it’s just a cough.” On the trip Gio ended up in the ER and was sent home with a diagnosis of pneumonia. When they got back, Aaronson showed her pediatrician the X-rays and got the brush off again. “He said, ‘I don’t think it’s pneumonia.’” Then it happened again. Aaronson took her sick son in, was told she was overreacting and went home, only to end up in the ER days later with a diagnosis of pneumonia. And that was it: “He kept brushing us off as first-time parents, but two different emergency rooms told us he had pneumonia, so we said, enough with that.” Aaronson switched pediatricians and never looked back. 

For Aaronson, it wasn’t so much that her doctor missed pneumonia two times. After all, she says, maybe it wasn’t pneumonia when he saw it. For her, the problem was feeling belittled. Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital who writes the Seattle Mama Doc Blog, agrees. “You want to feel comfortable asking your pediatrician questions, and you want to trust the answers,” says Dr. Swanson. If you don’t, it’s time to find a new doc. 

“It’s a really normal and common thing to switch a doctor,” says Dr. Swanson. Whenever your instinct is telling you to look for someone else, you should trust your gut. Physicians are there to provide a service to you. If you’re not getting the service you think you need, you should go elsewhere.”

5 Signs it’s Time to Switch

1. You can’t get a word in edgewise. If your pediatrician runs the show at your visits and you don’t have time to ask the questions you came with or respond to what she’s saying and ask follow-ups, “that a real red flag,” says Dr. Swanson. As your child’s advocate, you need to know that your concerns are heard and addressed.

2. Your doctor doesn’t follow through. If your pediatrician says they will do something (like call you back in two days, for instance), and they don’t, it’s a sign the office is overwhelmed and not looking out for your best interests. You are going to follow through on the directions they give you, and, in turn, you should expect the office to make good on the promises made to you.

3. Your doctor is a pushover. The whole reason you go to a doctor is “to have access to science and data that you wouldn’t have without going to medical school and through residency,” says Dr. Swanson. So if you head to your doctor’s office dead-set against a vaccine, it’s his responsibility to fill you in on why that may not be the best choice for your child. A doctor who just caves to your desires does not have your child’s best interest in mind. “Your doctor should have opinions,” says Dr. Swanson, “he just shouldn’t be paternalistic about them. He should be able to come together with a parent and elegantly come up with a plan that makes the most sense for your child.”

4. Your doctor rushes through a physical exam. “One of the great benefits to well visits is getting your child checked head to toe,” says Dr. Swanson. These days you might be able to get really detailed and accurate medical information online, but “you can’t have your child looked over head to toe on the Internet,” says Dr. Swanson. “It’s one of the really incredible and beautiful things about having a partnership with a pediatrician. We really do find things on the physical exam that we wouldn’t otherwise.” So make sure your doctor is spending a good portion of the visit actually examining your kid.

5. Your doctor is not board certified. Believe it or not, there are pediatricians practicing without board certification from the American Board of Pediatrics. Before you even make an appointment to interview a physician, go to the board’s website and use their Verification of Certification search tool to find the pediatrician you’re interested in.

One concern to leave behind: Nobody likes to wait for the doctor. But the occasional long wait, in and of itself, is not a reason to make a change. In fact, says Dr. Swanson, it can be a really good sign. “A lot of the time, I am not on time, because I am giving a child the care they need or answering the questions a parent needs to ask,” says Dr. Swanson. And that can be really hard to fit in when the medical profession forces doctors to schedule so little time for each patient. “I’m really thankful when parents are willing to wait for me, because when they need the extra time, they will get it,” says Dr. Swanson. If you find yourself waiting for long stretches at every visit, it could be a sign that it’s a poorly run clinic, says Dr. Swanson. But often a wait just means that your doctor is being thorough, and that’s what you want when it’s your time to walk through the exam room door.

When it’s Time for a Change

How to find a better fit

Unfortunately, some doctor’s offices will not schedule an interview appointment when the prospective patient is an older child. In that case, Dr. Swanson recommends setting up a visit for a legitimate health concern you have. (Maybe it’s those bedwetting questions you never got answered at your old pediatrician’s office.) “Make an appointment to solve a health problem, and let the new physician show you how they can partner with you,” says Dr. Swanson. Rather than searching online for lists of questions to ask prospective docs, she recommends personalizing your questions to problems you’ve had in the past, so you know they won’t be repeated in the future. For instance, “if you’ve had problems with doctors listening to you in the past, ask them if there is a way you can set the agenda at the beginning of the visit,” says Dr. Swanson. Most of all? “Don’t be shy.” This is your time to make a new start for you and for your child’s health.

Aaronson was thrilled with the new pediatrician she found. “We liked her right away. She followed through on everything. She listened to us, and addressed our concerns, and she even had this holistic approach, which I was looking for,” says Aaronson.

How to tell your old doc

“Don’t worry about your doctor’s feelings getting hurt. All doctors have had a patient leave them at one time or another. We don’t need an apology,” says Dr. Swanson. If you do want to provide your pediatrician with some constructive feedback, but feel uncomfortable addressing her directly, call the practice manager, clinic head, or even the receptionist and, as kindly as possible, explain what you were unhappy with and why you are leaving. “If there really was a concern about the quality of care, physicians should get that feedback,” says Dr. Swanson, “but I don’t think you are obligated to tell them.”

Aaronson thought leaving her doctor would be a bigger deal than it was. “You feel like you sign up for life with these people. But, you’re the parent, you’re the one in control, and I think you can forget that.”

Getting your files transferred

According to Dr. Swanson, most doctors’ offices should be willing to transfer growth charts and vaccinations records at no charge to a new doctor’s office. If the office’s policy is to charge for anything more than that, have your new doctor’s office request your child’s files, which should then be provided to them for free. “Don’t hesitate to ask your new partner to advocate for you,” says Dr. Swanson. After all that’s why you made the switch. 

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