How to Find a Doctor When You Are Sick

The day you get sick is not the best time to try to find a doctor. But it happens to so many people. Because of the outrageous cost of health insurance and the difficulties navigating the system even if you have insurance, many people wait until they are sick before they attempt to find a doctor.

So what should you do if this happens to you? That, of course, depends on your situation, but some of this information should help you when you are in a pinch and need to find a doctor fast.

A doctor talking to his patient in an exam room
John Fedele / Blend Images / Getty Images

If You Have Health Insurance

Health insurance can be confusing. If you just haven’t had or taken the time to find a doctor that is covered by your insurance plan, it may be hard to find one the day you get sick. But it can be done. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way:

  1. Contact your insurance company or go to its website. Your insurance card should have a customer service number somewhere on it that you can call to find out the details of your plan. You will need to know if you have an HMO, PPO, POS or some other type of plan. They are all different as far as what type of coverage is provided and the limitations for which doctors you can see.
  2. Get a list of providers in your area and find out what services are covered under your plan, as well as what your copay will be. If you have an HMO, you may already be assigned a primary care provider (PCP). Most insurance companies will allow you to change your PCP as long as you change to another provider in their network. If you have any other type of plan, you may not have been assigned a PCP, but you should still be able to get a list of doctors that are in your plan’s network.
  3. Get recommendations from friends, family, and coworkers. If you know nothing about any of the doctors in your area, ask around. Get referrals from friends, family, and coworkers in your area to see who they do and do not like. Ask questions and find out what they like or dislike about their doctors. This can go a long way in helping you find the right doctor for you.
  4. Start making phone calls once you have a list of doctors narrowed down. Just because a doctor is covered by your plan does not necessarily mean he or she is accepting new patients. You will need to call the office and ask if the doctor you have chosen is accepting new patients and if he or she has any availability for when you wish to be seen.
  5. Make your appointment. Once you find a doctor, keep your appointment and get on the road to recovery. If you like the doctor you have seen, be sure to make regular appointments for physicals so you can stay healthy year-round. If you decide the doctor you have seen is not for you, go ahead and try to find a new one before you get sick again.

If You Don't Have Health Insurance

Finding a doctor when you do not have any health insurance can be tricky. Although you are not limited by an insurance plan, you are of course limited by your finances and how much money you can pay out of pocket. Here are your options if you don’t have health insurance:

  • Find a doctor and pay out of pocket. My advice for uninsured people who want to go to a traditional office and find a doctor is similar to my advice for those who have insurance. Although you won’t have to find out who is covered by your insurance plan, it is still a good idea to ask around and get recommendations. You will then need to call the office and see if the doctor you have chosen will accept you as a new patient and what types of options they offer for patients who are self-pay. Some doctors offer discounts or will set up payment plans for their patients who do not have insurance – but you will need to ask so you aren’t surprised when you get to your appointment.
  • Contact your local health department. Not all health departments have doctors that can see patients for sick visits, but many do, so it is worth a call to see if yours does. If you don’t know where your local health department is, you can check in your phone book. The CDC also has a tool to help you locate your state’s health department, and many state websites also have listings of all of their local health departments.
  • Find a walk-in clinic. If your illness is not likely to be very severe or complicated, you may want to try a walk-in clinic. These are popping up all over the country in pharmacies, drug stores, and shopping centers. They are usually staffed by nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants who have been trained to treat common illnesses and complaints. They are usually fairly quick and inexpensive. However, if you have serious medical issues or chronic medical problems, these are probably not your best option.
  • Visit an urgent care facility or emergency room. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you can go to an urgent care facility or an emergency room. Urgent care facilities usually have more equipment and can handle slightly more than a regular doctor's office can, but are not attached to hospitals and do not handle complex cases like emergency rooms do. Typically you will have to pay some amount of money up front in urgent care facilities. Emergency rooms really should only be used for true emergencies or problems that absolutely cannot wait until a doctor’s office or another type of healthcare facility is open. Most of our country’s emergency rooms are overcrowded with people who do not need to be there. Although they do not require payment up front, going to an emergency room when it is not necessary puts a strain on the hospital and the community.

In a Nutshell

Finding a doctor when you are sick is a hassle, whether you have health insurance or not. These steps will hopefully make it easier. If you aren’t sick yet, go ahead and try to find a doctor so you can avoid this scenario in the future.

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