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Ask Dr. Sears: Choosing a Doctor

My wife and I are expecting our first child in a couple months, and we have no idea how to find a pediatrician. What should we look for when choosing our baby's doctor?

Thirty-five years ago, when I began my pediatric practice, I received some valuable information from a fellow doctor. He told me there were three qualities parents should look for in a pediatrician: able, affable, and available. Keeping those three A's in mind, follow these tips for picking Dr. Right.

Interview yourself. You want a doctor who is not only medically capable, but who supports your chosen parenting style as well. Ask yourself what's important to you as a parent and what special needs you might have. If you're adamant that you breastfeed, for example, you'll want to choose a breastfeeding-friendly pediatric practice. If you plan to return to work full- or part-time, you'll want a pediatrician who shows you how to stay connected to your baby.

Interview friends. Seek out fellow parents whose opinion you value. Ask them who their pediatrician is and what they like most about him. It's best to talk to friends whose parenting style aligns with yours.

Investigate your insurance options. After you've narrowed your list of doctors down to a few finalists, make sure they're on your insurance plan. If you find a must-have match who's not on your plan, calculate the out-of-pocket expense. Your plan may offer partial coverage for out-of-network doctors. Also, check whether your company has a medical reimbursement account (FSA) to help ease the financial burden.

Interview prospective doctors. Call the pediatricians you're interested in and set up prenatal interviews (usually free of cost). Arrive early for your appointment so you can check out the office and ask the staff any questions they might be able to answer, such as after-hours policies and coverage, appointment scheduling, and the doctor's hospital affiliations. Note whether the staff is friendly and accommodating. Once you do meet the doctor, be brief and concise. By asking plenty of leading questions, you'll be able to determine the doctor's stance on the issues that concern you. For example, if the question "Is it okay to pick up may baby when he's crying?" garners a "let him cry it out" response, this may indicate that this practice is not for you!

Another tip: Be positive. Nothing is more off-putting to a potential pediatrician than an interview that opens with a "we don't want" list: "We don't want our baby to get shots, we don't our baby to take antibiotics, we don't want... " A better way to address your needs is to ask questions: "What is your custom for routine immunizations?" "When do you prescribe antibiotics?" Another big turn-off is indifference ("I chose you because you're on my insurance plan").

It's helpful to share something personal about yourself at the interview. For example, a mother-to-be will often say to me, "This is my first baby, and I know I'm going to be such a worry wart!" I always reassure her that it's actually her job to worry. In fact, my biggest concern is mothers who don't worry. In the parent-pediatrician relationship, the parents' role is to keenly observe, and give accurate reports on, their child. The doctor's role is to take the information provided and assess whether there's a need for concern, then give the right diagnosis and a plan of treatment.

After the interview, go over what you've learned about your potential pediatrician. Oftentimes, your first impression, or gut feeling, is the best guide. This is a long-term relationship, and you owe it to your child to make the right decision. As long as you feel your chosen doctor is going to sincerely care about you and your child, you'll be just fine.