It can be challenging to find a doctor you really like and trust, but it’s really important to take steps ahead of time to find a doctor who is a good fit for you. Consider these 5 questions when looking for a functional medicine doctor:
1. Training and expertise - You can assume all physicians (MD or DO) received similar schooling to get their degrees, but you should find out if the doctor you’re considering completed a residency, which is practical, on-the-job supervised training for several years after medical school. Most doctors who completed a residency will be board certified in one or more specialties, and some will even be a fellow or have additional certification in areas of interest. Look for a doctor who has completed a residency in the area you will be seeking care and is board certified in that specialty. Functional medicine doctors should have done additional coursework and training in functional medicine and be actively practicing the functional approach with their patients. Expertise is important, too. Does the doctor have a reputation for being an astute problem solver and able to diagnose complex problems? Ask around.
2. Personality and values - Bedside manner is a game changer in medicine. If you are having a highly technical surgery, it’s not such a big deal, but if you are seeking a functional medicine physician, personality and values become very important. In order to understand your whole health story, your functional medicine doctor will have to be a good listener, caring, and authentic. Your doctor should also have similar health values or be very open minded about yours. Is faith in healing important to you? Where do you stand on vaccines? Do you tend to prefer a conventional or holistic approach to treatment? There is no room for ego in functional medicine. Health problems are often complex, and we (the scientific and medical community) just don’t know all there is to know about the human body and healing, so your doctor has to be humble enough to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out together.” And your doctor has to be willing to accept your point of view about your own health and your values. You have to be able to trust your functional medicine doctor with a lot of personal information, and to trust him or her to work on your behalf to get to the root of the problem. Don’t be shy about asking these more personal questions.
3. Self care habits - This might seem like a strange topic to discuss with a potential doctor, but it matters. How does the doctor practice wellness in his or her own life? Is the doctor committed to working sustainable hours? What does he do to manage stress? Does the doctor eat well? Is she active? Does he have good relationships? If the doctor does not practice health and wellness in his own life, he may not be totally committed to the process and will be limited in his ability to understand and support you.
4. Working with other doctors, medications, after-hours care, insurance, and other logistics - When looking for a functional medicine doctor, ask about whether or not the doctor provides complete primary care, takes insurance, and works with other physicians and practitioners from other specialities. What is the usual method of communication with other professionals and the patient? Are there any office policies about prescribing routine medications, controlled substances, or getting refills? What are the office hours? How are after-hours urgent problems handled? Your own needs will be an important consideration when determining whether or not a particular functional medicine doctor is a good fit for you, and asking these questions will help you navigate how best to get the complete care you need. Most functional medicine doctors’ offices are very helpful in assisting with coordination of a healthcare team that meets all of your needs.
5. Fees - It’s important to know up front what your financial responsibility will be when you choose to see a functional medicine doctor. When dealing with insurance, it’s often hard to know this up front, but if the doctor doesn’t bill insurance for your visits or has a program or membership option, they will be able to tell you their fees so you can plan accordingly. For many people, there is a knee-jerk reaction that paying for services up front will be more expensive than using insurance. This isn’t always true. There are a lot of factors at play, including insurance copays, deductibles, coinsurance, and non-covered services that when factored together often make using insurance an expensive proposition for outpatient care. It’s important to see the big picture by actually doing the math, and also to consider the functional approach when you pursue working with a functional medicine doctor. Since one of the foundational principles of functional medicine is to identify and cure the root cause of the issue, many people find that working with a functional medicine doctor is actually less expensive over time. Often, as patients get healthier, they require fewer medications, doctor visits, and other interventions, and they may actually wind up saving money. Seeing a functional medicine doctor is an investment in your short and long term health. It could certainly turn out to be a good financial investment, but more importantly, it is a good investment in your health and wellbeing.
Jill Butryn, MD