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Finding a family physician requires might mean ‘interviewing’ a few candidates before picking the one who best suits your needs.

Shannon Fagan/XiXinXing

The question

My family doctor is retiring. Her office sent me a list of doctors who are taking on new patients. How do I pick one?

The Answer

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It's certainly worthwhile putting some thought into your selection. After all, "your family physician is one of the most important relationships in your life," says Dr. Joshua Tepper, president and CEO of Health Quality Ontario, an agency of the provincial government who is also a physician in a family practice at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Physicians now work in a wide variety of settings, ranging from traditional solo practices to groups of doctors who are linked to other health-related services. The type of practice could be a big factor in your final choice. But there are three key things to consider when making your decision – access to care, your specific health needs and the doctor's communication style.

Access to care

You may have a great doctor, but that won't do much good if you can't get an appointment when you need one. If your own work schedule is fairly rigid, then that could make your access problems even worse.

However, some doctors' offices have evening and weekend clinics or hold open a certain number of appointments every day for urgent cases. You can get a good idea about how easy it is to get an appointment by calling the doctor's receptionist and asking about after-hours clinics and the ability to get a same-day or next-day booking.

Physicians who work in groups or teams may take turns covering for each other. This approach can make it easier for patients to get timely care. But it also means you may not always see your own doctor – especially when you go to an after-hours clinic.

Your health needs

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Some doctors develop practices that focus on certain groups of patients. And you may feel more comfortable with a doctor who already has numerous patients like you. Some physicians see a lot of young families and children – and deliver babies, too. If you're starting your own family, you may want a doctor whose practice is child-centred.

Other physicians treat a high percentage of seniors. If you are getting on in years, then you may want a doctor willing to do home visits for older patients.

You'll also find that certain medical teams have links to other health-related services that might include dietitians, occupational therapists, addiction counselling and social workers.

The extra services, "usually depend on the needs in the surrounding community," explains Dr. Lisa Del Giudice, a physician in the Academic Family Health Team at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Some doctors are connected to teaching hospitals that can sometimes put you in touch with new and innovative therapies. But it's worth noting you will likely be examined by medical students and residents in clinics affiliated with universities and hospitals. Staff physicians will be supervising the doctors-in-training.

Communication styles

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It's critically important to be able to talk freely with your doctor about your health concerns.

"Different people feel comfortable with different communication styles and approaches," Tepper says.

"It's actually okay to interview a potential doctor" to see if he or she is right for you.

Dr. Tepper has had people book an appointment simply to get to know him before deciding to join his practice.

"It's a chance for us to chat about their priorities," Tepper says. "Sometimes they ask me if I am willing to answer their questions over the phone or by e-mail. Some people have even asked my views on abortion or end-of-life care."

Most people find a new family doctor when they are in good health.

"You have to imagine what that relationship will feel like in a time of crisis," Tepper says. It's not an exaggeration to say your life could some day depend on that relationship.

Starting the search

Of course, not all patients start their search for a new doctor by being handed a list of available physicians.

Many provinces now have websites to help link patients to health-care providers. For instance, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care has an online service called Health Care Connect. The information "is usually just a few Google strokes away," Tepper says.

It's also true that parts of the country have a smaller supply of doctors than others and some people do struggle to find a family physician.

Del Giudice says it's a good idea to ask friends and family for names of physicians who might be taking on new patients. "Word of mouth can be very helpful for matching up to a doctor," she says.

Paul Taylor is a patient navigation advisor at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He is a former health editor of The Globe and Mail. You can find him on Twitter @epaultaylor and online at Sunnybrook's Your Health Matters.

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