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Information about all aspects of finances affected by a serious health condition. Includes income sources such as work, investments, and private and government disability programs, and expenses such as medical bills, and how to deal with financial problems.
Information about all aspects of health care from choosing a doctor and treatment, staying safe in a hospital, to end of life care. Includes how to obtain, choose and maximize health insurance policies.
Answers to your practical questions such as how to travel safely despite your health condition, how to avoid getting infected by a pet, and what to say or not say to an insurance company.


A specialist is a doctor who specializes in treating a particular illness, part of your body or system (such as the immune system.)

Generally people see the specialist recommended by their treating doctor. If you are looking for a specialist for a single consultation for a particular problem, your doctor's recommendation may be adequate.  However, if the reason you need a specialist is serious and you are likely to see the doctor on an ongoing basis (such as when you are looking for a doctor who specializes in a particular life changing condition) consider several different specialists before settling on the best one for you.

Even if your doctor recommends seeing the specialist "immediately," that usually means you have at least a few weeks before you see the specialist. Ask your doctor how much time you have before you should see the specialist.

Take the time to consider all your choices. Not all specialists are created alike. You are entitled to the best specialist you can get.

If you have difficulty getting a timely appointment with a specialist, ask your primary care doctor or the doctor's staff to make the appointment for you. They can often do better in getting appointments.

There are seven steps to choosing a specialist:

Step 1. Decide what kind of specialist you need.

Step 2. Decide what to look for in a specialist.

Step 3. Locate a specialist who fits your criteria, including insurance and/or financial criteria.

Step 4. Check the specialist's quality.

Step 5. Interview the staff.

Step 6. Interview the specialist.

Step 7. Review all you learned and make a decision.

NOTE: Before agreeing to a treatment, ask all questions of concern to you. For a list of suggested questions, see:

Step 3. Locate A Specialist Who Fits Your Insurance and/or Finances

Many insurance policies limit your choice of specialists. To locate a specialist that fits what you are looking for as well as your insurance situation, see  the appropriate section below. The suggestions about each different type of policy should help you locate a specialist who fits your needs in your area, and help you to narrow your choices. If you cannot find an appropriate specialist in your area, consider traveling to a medical center and seeing a specialist there to set and review your treatment. You can then take the treatment or drugs locally.

NOTE: Help is available to find a specialist. For example, Second Opinions Medical Information Services can help find specialists for particular needs. See offsite link or call 850.862.5075.

IF YOU HAVE MANAGED CARE HEALTH INSURANCE such as an HMO, PPO or POS (a plan where you have to get approval before seeing a doctor, or are urged to see one of the plan's doctors

The health plan will provide a list of specialists from which to choose.

If a specialist you would like to consider is not on the list, ask the doctor's office if s/he would be willing to contract with your insurance carrier. If not, it could be helpful to you to learn why not. The answer may provide information to watch for with respect to the doctors who are on the plan.

If the doctor is willing to be on the list, speak with the insurance company and ask if the doctor could be put on their list. If the company says no, it may also be helpful to know why not.


Original Medicare (also known as "Old Medicare"): You can see any specialist who accepts Medicare. For a list of such specialists, see offsite link (click on Search Tools, then Find a Doctor).

If a specialist you would like to consider is no't on the list, ask the doctor's office if she or he would be willing to accept Medicare. The odds are the doctor has considered it, and rejected the idea - but it's worth a phone call. If the doctor is willing to be on the list, call Medicare at 800.MEDICARE.

Medicare Advantage: If you have a Medicare managed care health insurance plan, such as an HMOPPO or POS, the health plan will provide you a list of doctors from which to choose. 

If a specialist you would like to consider is not on the list, ask the doctor's office if she or he would be willing to join your insurance carrier. If not, it could be helpful to you to learn why not. It may provide you information to watch for with respect to the doctors who are on the plan.

If the doctor is willing to be on the list, speak with the insurance company and ask if the doctor could be put on their list. If the company says no, it may also be helpful to know why not.


If Medicaid pays for a private managed health care plan: If you have a managed care health insurance plan, such as an HMO, PPO or POS, the health plan will provide you a list of specialists from which to choose.

You may be limited to a choice of designated participating specialists or medical groups. Check your plan to obtain your choice of specialists.  If there are no specialists who can provide you with the quality of care that you require, you will likely have to advocate for yourself to see a specialist outside of the network plan.

If a specialist you'd like to consider isn't on the list, ask the doctor's office if she or he would be willing to join your insurance carrier. If not, it could be helpful to you to learn why not. It may provide you information to watch for with respect to the doctors who are on the plan. If the doctor is willing to be on the list, speak with the insurance company and ask if the doctor could be put on their list. If the company says no, it may also be helpful to know why not.

If you do not have a managed health care plan through Medicaid: To locate specialists who accept Medicaid, contact your local Medicaid Office.

If the offices does not have a list, locate doctors who accept Medicaid through one of the following:

  • Hospitals: Contact your local hospital, particularly community hospitals. The better the hospital, the better their doctors are likely to be. Ask to speak with one of their social workers.
  • Local disease specific non-profit organizations may know the names of doctors who accept Medicaid.
  • Support Groups and Self Help GroupsIf you are a member of a support group or a self help group, other members may have suggestions about doctors who accept Medicaid. 
  • Clergy: Your local religious organization will likely know the name of doctors who accept Medicaid.
  • Friends and Family: People in a situation similar to yours may have doctors to recommend.


Under a Private Fee-For-Service (Indemnity) Insurance Policy you have an unlimited choice of specialists.  See the next section: "Uninsured".


The following will help you find a specialist in your area who fits your needs. Once you locate doctors of interest, you can learn about how many times heor she performed a particular service and the average charges for those services at offsite link (click on "Medicare Physician And Other Supplier Look-Up Tool")

Professional Groups

 If you are looking for a particular type of doctor, professional groups provide a helpful place to start:

  •  American Medical Association offsite link 800-621.8335  click on "Doctor Finder"
  •  Oncologists: American Society of Clinical Oncologists offsite link
  • American Board of Medical Specialties: offsite link, allows you to search by specialty. The site is free but requires registration of your name and email address.

Health Professionals

Ask doctors, nurses or other healthcare professionals for the names of specialists who fit your criteria. They can often provide valuable "inside" information about the doctors as well. They may also be able to tell you which specialists to avoid.

Local Prestigious Hospitals or Large Teaching Hospitals in your Area:

  • If such a hospital is nearby:  Stop by and ask a nurse in the Emergency Room or in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or a hospitalist (a doctor who only works in a hospital) who she or he would use, and why. Think about saying something like: "I'm new to town. I have to choose a specialist who has privileges at this hospital, most ideally one who is particularly good at treating patients with (mention your diagnosis.)  I know all the doctors here are great, but I'd appreciate your telling me which specific specialist you would consider if you were me." 
  • If the hospital is not nearby: .Call their doctor referral service.  You will only receive a list of doctors who are affiliated with their hospital, but these types of facilities tend to attract the "cream of the crop." 

Local Medical School 

Contact the medical school located closest to you.  Explain the type of specialist that you are looking for and ask for recommendations.  Some instructors actually maintain their own medical practices and tend to be informed on the latest recommendations, procedures and treatments. 

Local Disease Specific Non-Profit Organizations/Support Groups

Both may be able to provide invaluable information about specialists because they come to the table with an insight with respect to your diagnosis and medical needs.      

Family and Friends

Consider asking family and friends whose opinions you trust for the names of specialists with whom they have had a successful relationship.  Keep in mind that even though friends or family members recommend a specialist, we recommend that you do your own research about the doctor. One person's experience with a particular doctor may be an exception.

The Internet

There are many easily accessible sites about specialists on the internet.  Unfortunately, there is no one-stop shopping. Check the websites listed in our document: How To Locate A Doctor Through The Internet 

These sites can help you compare the qualifications of specialists for which you already have names, or they can help you locate specialists who meet your criteria.  All services are free of charge except where noted. 


If you need a doctor who makes housecalls, see the website of the American Academy of Home Care Physicians ( offsite link). It lists doctors and other health care providers by state and zip codes for the areas served.

Step 4. Check The Doctor's Quality

Even the best schools or residencies have people who are at the bottom of the class who may not be the best specialists.

Many health plans, state agencies and watchdog groups offer consumer scorecards that rate doctors. The ratings measure such things as whether the doctor follows "best practices," safety, patient satisfaction and cost. Some web sites also include doctors' performance on specific procedures.

  • If you have health insurance, start by checking your health plan's Web site.
  • Check to see if your state health department has a site. For example, New York's offsite link and Pennsylvania's offsite link.
  • Some companies, such as Health Grades, Inc. ( offsite link provide ratings by consumers for free. 

Check to see if there have been disciplinary actions against the doctor. offsite link provides disciplinary information for free. To learn more, see: Has A Doctor Been Subjected To Disciplinary Action? (NOTE: Take consumer ratings with a grain of salt. If you are interested in a doctor, ask him or her why she or he is rated in a certain way.)

If you learn of additional sites about a doctor's quality, please share the information via Survivorship A to Z

To Learn More

Step 1. Decide What Kind of Specialist You Need

Your primary care doctor will tell you what kind of specialist you need.

Step 2. Decide What You Want to Look For in a Specialist

Factors to consider when choosing a specialist follow. While the factors may the same for choosing any doctor, which are important to you may differ depending on the particular doctor's role in your life.

  • Board Certification: Certification by the American Board of Medical Specialties is evidence that the specialist has received the proper training, performed the specialized residency, and has passed an extensive examination directly related to a specific condition and/or medical specialty. It does not certify the amount of a doctor's experience with your particular condition. To learn more about board certification, and to see if a particular doctor is board certified, see offsite link
  • Hospital Affiliation: Doctors can only admit patients to hospitals if the doctor has an arrangement known as "an affiliation" with that hospital. The better the hospital with which the doctor is affiliated, the better the doctor is likely to be. Hospitals check background and quality on an ongoing basis. It is also likely that you will get better care in a better hospital, which in turn affects the result.
  • Medical School: Do you care in which country the school is located, and about the name of the school?
  • Payment: If you have health insurance, does the specialist accept it? If you don't have health insurance, is the amount of the specialist's charge an issue?
  • Hospital Residency: Some people only want specialists who were a resident at a prestigious hospital.
  • Years in Practice/Age: 
    • Does age matter to you? Generally, the age of the doctor does not affect outcome. However, age may relate to your comfort level.
    • The longer a doctor has been in practice, the more experience he or she has. On the other hand, the doctor is also further away from the latest developments being discussed in medical school.
  • Sex: Do you prefer a doctor of the same sex you are?
  • Clinical Trials: Do you care whether the specialist heads or is involved in clinical trials relating to your condition?
  • Solo or Group Practice? Both types of practices have their advantages. 
    • A solo practice may provide more continuity of care and allow for the development of a more personal relationship with the doctor. 
    • A group practice may be a group of doctors with the same specialty or different specialties. A group practice may provide for additional medical opinions and more extensive services.
  • Location: Is the specialist's location important to you? Location may be more important if you will see the doctor on a continuous basis than if you only see him or her once or a few times.
  • Parking or Other Transportation: Important to you?
  • Hours: Is it only convenient for you to see the specialist on certain days and/or hours?
  • Language: If English isn't your first language, do you need a specialist who can speak your language -- or at least have translation available?

While the following will not be relevant to your initial search, start thinking about things you care about that will only become clear once you meet the doctor. For instance:

  • Bedside manner: Does the specialist's personality matter to you? You may care more about a personal relationship with a primary care doctor or a specialist you'll see over time than a specialist you see for a particular event, such as a surgeon.
  • How much do you want to participate? Do you want a specialist who tells you want to do? At the other extreme, do you need to make all the decisions? Do you want to think of your specialist as a partner, a member of your team who gives you his or her opinion and expertise, discusses matters, and lets you make the final decision?

To Learn More

More Information

Clinical Trials

Step 5. Interview The Staff

Once you've narrowed your choices to a few specialists, call each specialist's office and dig a little deeper to shorten your list. We have provided a Questionnaire For The Doctor's Staff.  Ask the ones that are meaningful to you. Feel free to add any questions not on the list.

  • This call could be a good indicator of how you will be treated as a patient by the staff, and possibly even the specialist.
  • Ask to speak to the office manager if possible.  He or she is the most likely to have the answers to your questions.
  • When calling each office, keep in mind that you are not yet a patient and not every office will be willing to answer all of your questions. Therefore, we recommend that you take a minute to review the list of questions. Cross out the ones that aren't important to you. Prioritize the rest in an order that is most relevant to you. Insert a number from 1 -- 17 (or whatever number remains) in the left margin next to the question in order of importance to you. That way if you only get to ask a few questions, they will be those that are most important to you. Even if you ask all the questions, the office interview should require no more than a few minutes of time.  It would be helpful to mention this fact at the beginning of the call.
  • After you have spoken with the different offices, compare your notes and decide if there is an office that you feel will best meet your needs. If you were not satisfied with your office conversations, you may decide to choose some additional doctors and repeat the process.  Trust your instincts and do what feels right to you.

To Learn More

Step 6. Interview The Specialist

Yes, specialists do interview.

During this initial visit you may choose to simply interview the specialist or you may choose to have a complete physical examination in addition to the interview process -- particularly if the doctor charges for the visit. While we wish we could say that the specialist will give you an interview session for free, the odds are you will be charged for the interview (or it will be covered under your managed care plan.) If you will be charged, you may as well be examined at the same time. If you decide to combine the two, read How To Work Most Effectively With Your Doctor, to make the most of your time together.

When you schedule the appointment, let the person who makes the appointments know you will need enough time to ask questions as well as to have the examination.

To Learn More

More Information

Maximizing An Office Visit

Step 7. Review All You've Learned And Make A Decision

Once you've completed the investigation process:

  • Review your notes.
  • Ask any additional questions you have.
  • Trust your instincts.