5 Steps to the Perfect Pediatrician

Featured Article, Growth and Development, Health and Safety

Finding the right pediatrician for your children is one of the most important decisions parents will make. So how do you choose one that’s the right fit for your family? We asked a pediatrician and real parents to share their thoughts on what to look for—and what to run from—when picking a physician to care for your kids. Here’s what they had to say.

1. Start with the basics.

Chances are that in the early years of your child’s life, you’ll be visiting the pediatrician’s office a lot, so finding one you like — and that’s convenient — is crucial. Start your search broadly by asking friends and family for their recommendations and visiting different practices’ websites to get a feel for their location, their hours and their physicians’ credentials. (The letters “FAAP” following the pediatrician’s name means he or she is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.)

2. Pay a visit.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, call the offices to schedule a tour or to attend a group meeting with other prospective parents, says Dr. David Hill, M.D., FAAP, a pediatrician at Coastal Pediatric Associates in Wilmington, N.C., and the author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro.

During your visit, scope out the facilities: Are they clean and modern? Are there separate waiting areas for sick and well children? Does it feel kid-friendly? Is the staff pleasant and accommodating? Do patients appear to have been waiting a long time?

3. Ask the right questions.

The group or individual meeting is the time to gather information about the practice that will help you decide if it’s a good fit. Here’s a list of important questions to ask:

  • How are appointments scheduled?
  • What are the late arrival and cancellation policies?
  • Are there weekend or late evening hours?
  • Do you accept my health insurance?
  • If my child is sick, how do I get in to see the doctor? What if my child’s siblings also need to be seen?
  • What do I do if I just have a question? And what should I do if there’s an emergency?
  • How often will we see the same doctor? (“Building a relationship with your provider is very important,” says Hill. “On the other hand, different people notice different things or have different approaches to the same problem.”)
  • How many patients do you see in a day? How much time can I expect to spend with the doctor? (“We’re all under a lot of time pressure, and there is a lot of urgency to get in and out of rooms as quickly as possible,” says Hill. “That means being efficient, but you can go beyond efficiency to being rushed.” He says a reasonable number of patients for pediatricians to see in one day is 20 to 30. If the physician reports seeing many more than that, it’s fair to ask how.)
  • What is your philosophy of practice? (Hill says this is perhaps the most important question to ask when trying to discern whether a doctor or practice will be a good fit for your family. The practice should be able to clearly convey its stance on a number of topics, including vaccines, feeding and nutrition, use of alternative and holistic approaches, and interventions such as antibiotics and lab work. If your child has any special needs or conditions, ask how the practice would handle them. How would it handle other considerations about your family, such as religious or cultural beliefs, or if you’re part of a same-sex couple?

Hill says if the practice balks at letting you tour the office and ask questions before joining, or can’t answer questions to your satisfaction, it could be a red flag. “It’s an incredibly reasonable request, and if you have a difficult time finding someone to answer your questions, it may not be a great sign that the office is going to be responsive to you as a patient,” he says.

4. Be aware of potential red flags.

What are other red flags? One is a lack of engagement with your child. “When you’re a pediatrician, the child is your patient,” Hill says.

Amy McElroy, a mother of two in California, agrees. “A pediatrician should talk your child, not just you, and show respect for the child as a person, no matter the age,” she says. She had a bad experience several years ago when their pediatrician diagnosed her daughter, then 8, with vitiligo. McElroy wrote about the encounter in an essay, in which she described how the pediatrician spoke only to McElroy during the visit, providing little information or compassion and doing nothing to alleviate the fears of her daughter.

Other red flags, Hill says, are feeling ignored or “blown off” by the physician or if the physician can’t explain why he’s prescribed a particular treatment. Eva Miller, who lives in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., faced both when trying to get to the bottom of her young daughter’s food allergies. “Red flags: They brush off your concerns or don’t refer you to a specialist and think they know it all,” she says.

Miller was told by her pediatrician that her daughter’s constant screaming was because she was simply “gassy and high needs,” both of which, Miller says, were true “but were not the root of the problem. She did not bring up the idea of food allergies or work with us to find answers other than simply telling us what she believed was going on.”

Miller did her own research and found a new pediatrician and a specialist to help with her daughter’s condition. “If you don’t feel like you’re getting satisfying answers, try another pediatrician or a specialist,” she says. “But you know your child best. Don’t get swayed by the fact that this person has a medical degree. Pediatricians are busy, and specialists may miss stuff, especially if it’s outside of the ordinary concerns.”

5. Trust your gut.

Lastly, trusting your gut can also lead you to finding a great pediatrician, says Claire Zulkey, of Evanston, Ill. “Even though ours isn’t very conveniently located, I just feel good with her,” Zulkey says. “She and her office treat our son with care and have a combination of laidback-ness and also a touch of tough love that I appreciate.”

To find a pediatrician in your area, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website for parents, HealthyChildren.org.

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