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Can I switch to another doctor in the same clinic?

The question

My family doctor is polite, efficient and knows her stuff, yet I've never felt comfortable with her. Her demeanour is cold and she sometimes seems distracted; her eyes wander as I'm talking or she'll fiddle with her notes or type into the computer. Not long ago, she was away and I saw her colleague. This doctor was fantastic: She was warm, with an easy manner and listened to me. What is the etiquette for switching to another doctor in the same clinic?

The answer

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Most people leave relationships because they think they have found something better. With doctors, it's not much different. You sparked a connection with a new physician and want to move on. It's an issue sure to pop up with patients, given that most physicians work in a large medical practice.

There are reasons, other than preference, for you to make the switch. Even if this new physician isn't clinically better than the other, the relationship you establish is important. Patients more engaged in their care tend to fare better.

According to Frank Martino, chief of family medicine at William Osler Health Centre in Brampton, Ont., the vast majority of patients don't change doctors but for those who do, it "sometimes takes two or three doctors before they find the right one."

The No. 1 reason to change is typically access – the doctor isn't as available as the patient wants.

For you to change, it requires a bit of detective work, then a face-to-face talk.

You need to learn the office policy on switching doctors by tracking down the office manager.

If a switch is possible, make an appointment with the new doctor. Say you don't feel a connection with the current physician, even though she has provided great care. Ask if you can join her practice.

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She may say yes right then – if she is taking new patients – or more likely, say she will get back to you at which point you should nail her down to a time of two weeks.

Most likely, she will want to make discreet enquiries about you to see what kind of patient you are: If you are someone who runs late, has a history of no-shows or fails to comply with agreed-upon medical advice, you will constitute a concern.

If the new doctor agrees to take you, you must break the news. Tell your original doctor you are happy with the care she has provided and that she is a very good clinician but you don't have a relationship that works best for you. Say you have that connection with the other doctor, who has agreed to take you on. Thank her for the care she has provided.

If a face-to-face seems uncomfortable, write a letter to the physician. You want to sever this relationship with the greatest amount of grace; in that group practice, you may be running into your old doctor again, especially since they probably all share on-call duties.

You may be worried about this but don't be. I doubt your family doctor's feelings will be hurt. In fact, she will likely want what's best for you, which in this case, is moving on.

The Patient Navigator is a column that answers reader questions on how to navigate our health-care system. Send your questions to

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