How to Find the Best Doctors for Thyroid Care

Doctor Talking with Patient
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When you suspect you may have a thyroid condition, figuring out what type of doctor to see can be confusing, as many of the practitioners you already work with might not be familiar with how to diagnose and treat these concerns. By following some general guidelines, you can get started on the right track in your effort to find a great thyroid doctor. Above all, remember that you are never "stuck" with a physician. If you are unhappy with the doctor helping you manage your thyroid disease, you have every right to get a second opinion—or switch altogether.

Be Realistic

Thyroid patients often approach finding a doctor with the overly optimistic wish list of wanting a really great thyroid doctor who can also be their primary care doctor, is up on all the latest thyroid information, has an open mind about different thyroid drugs, has a terrific bedside manner, has evening and weekend hours, takes their insurance, never runs late, won't keep them waiting, and is no more than a 15-minute drive away.

An ideal set of criteria, to be sure, but finding a doctor who checks all of these boxes is likely never going to happen. You probably won't be able to get everything you want in one thyroid doctor, so decide what is really important to you, and what is realistic. For example, if there's no way you can pay out of pocket or travel a long distance to see a doctor, focus your search on doctors within your health care network located in close proximity.

Consider Your Needs

Ultimately, the type of doctor you choose for your thyroid care depends on a number of factors, including the nature of your condition, what you can afford, your location, and the availability of physicians in your area, among other considerations.

Some thyroid patients and doctors assume that an endocrinologist—the kind of specialist who handles endocrine diseases like thyroid problems and diabetes—is always necessary for thyroid issues. If you have Graves' disease, hyperthyroidism, nodules, a goiter, suspected thyroid cancer, or thyroid eye disease, then an endocrinologist is very important. And if you have a new onset of Hashimoto's thyroiditis—the autoimmune disease that causes hypothyroidism—an initial evaluation by an endocrinologist is probably a good idea. The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists maintains a database of certified endocrinologists, and the American Thyroid Association maintains an online thyroid specialist database that lists endocrinologists around the United States.

However, keep in mind that there is a severe shortage of practicing endocrinologists in the United States. Endocrinologists are at the front lines of the epidemic of diabetes, and are also specialists in thyroid disease, osteoporosis, infertility, and a host of other hormone issues, so demand far exceeds supply. That means that waiting lists can be months to see an endocrinologist, and that trend is likely to get worse as the shortage becomes more acute.

Thyroid cancer is relatively rare, and some endocrinologists have little experience with it. So if you suspect or have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you'll definitely want to work with a physician who has extensive and demonstrable expertise working specifically with thyroid cancer patients. It's not enough to just see an endocrinologist or a head and neck surgeon—see a thyroid cancer expert. Thyroid-Cancer.net has a list of specialists, and the Thyroid Cancer Survivor's Association also maintains lists of thyroid cancer experts around the United States and internationally.

The lowest rates of complications for thyroid surgery are seen with surgeons who specialize in thyroid surgery and who perform several hundred thyroid surgeries a year. So, if you need thyroid surgery, definitely find an experienced thyroid surgeon.

An endocrinologist or thyroidologist is not necessarily the best choice for everyone with a thyroid condition, especially if you have borderline thyroid problems that doctors are refusing to treat, or if you are hypothyroid and don't feel well on your treatment, but your doctor is not interested in offering any alternatives. In those situations, patients frequently turn to a range of other types of doctors, such as general practitioners, internists, holistic and integrative doctors, osteopathic physicians, and gynecologists. Physicians from a broad spectrum of specialties are becoming more adept at diagnosing and treating hormone imbalances, including thyroid conditions. Some patients use the directories provided by the American Holistic Medical Association and the patient-recommended Thyroid Top Doctors Directory, among other sources, to find these professionals.

Be Willing to Pay If You Can

If you are covered by an HMO, participate in medical insurance, have medical coverage from the U.S. military, or live outside the United States and have access to government-sponsored health care (like the National Health Service in the United Kingdom), there are some pros and cons for the thyroid care you're likely to receive.

If you need the services of a conventional endocrinologist, you should be fine, because these sorts of health care systems typically have qualified specialists who can capably treat you.

However, If you have subclinical or autoimmune thyroid disease, or you do not do well on a standard levothyroxine treatment, you may be frustrated by the limited choice of doctors you have, and the level of attention those doctors give to thyroid diagnosis and treatment.

You will find that doctors in these sorts of systems are rarely allowed to use innovative or controversial tests and treatments, such as free T3 tests, reverse T3 tests, T3 drugs, or natural desiccated thyroid medications, and they usually can't spend the time to help identify, test for, diagnose, and treat complex autoimmune and hormonal imbalances.

Doctors who are part of HMOs, reimbursed by insurance companies, or part of government-run health care programs must follow official guidelines set up by those companies or governments that carefully outline which diagnostic tests and treatments are the standard of care, as well as impose time limits for office visits. HMOs, insurers, and government health-care programs typically require doctors to follow narrow and conventional guidelines, such as relying on TSH tests for diagnosis and management, and using only levothyroxine drugs like Synthroid for thyroid hormone replacement.

When you need more personalized thyroid care, you can certainly decide to fight the system. But it can be a long, hard fight that you may not win. Sometimes you may encounter a more open-minded thyroid doctor who is willing to think outside the box on your behalf. If you do, take advantage of that relationship. Frequently, however, the best solution is to pay out of pocket to see a great "private" practitioner. If you can afford it, just a few visits with a truly knowledgeable thyroid doctor could mean returning to wellness sooner than you might under the care of another physician.

Know When to Move On

Sometimes, when you feel like your thyroid doctor could use an additional pair of eyes to look at the situation, a second opinion can be a terrific addition to your care. In other situations, a second opinion is not enough, and it's really time for a new doctor. Many patients are reluctant to "fire" a doctor, or may not even know the signs that it's time to do so, but it's often the most important first step toward wellness.

If you're still questioning whether or not to take that step, listen to what other patients have to say about it; you can likely connect with some via social media or support groups.

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