Tips to find a good psychiatrist

Seems like a simple enough question: How do you find a psychiatrist?

It’s not that easy to answer. There are all sorts of psychiatrists who do all sorts of things (therapy, not therapy, specific forms of therapy like psychoanalysis or CBT), and then there’s the overriding insurance question. Not to mention location, location, location.

We’ve talked before about insurance, and if you haven’t read Why Shrinks Don’t Take Your Insurance, please do. It’s a good place to start.

In areas where psychiatrists are in short supply, often, they do take insurances and they only see patients for medication management. In areas where there are more docs and people have treatment options, they may split between those who do and don’t take insurance. You should be aware that if a psychiatrist doesn’t take your insurance, you will likely still get reimbursed, but there may be a higher deductible, you’ll need to mail in the form yourself, and there will be a long wait (and assorted hassles) for the money to come back. Some people are reimbursed very well, others or not. If your insurance is an HMO or has no out-of-network benefits, then a non-insurance doc will costs you the entire fee.

So start here:

  • Does it matter if the psychiatrist is in your insurance network? If it does, and you live in an area where many shrinks don’t participate with insurance, then call the insurance company and get names and numbers and do hope they aren’t all dead or not-accepting patients.
  • What kind of psychiatrist? If the patient is under age 16-18, your best best is a child & adolescent psychiatrist. Be aware that many psychiatrists at academic centers run research projects and teach, and don’t see many outpatients. That’s not to say never—and most have a few patients, but they are often a bit harder to reach, especially when they are presenting at conferences or have grants dues, and may have difficult parking. So child, general adult, or is there some specialty need which may be very restrictive—for example treatment of sexual or eating disorders or psychoanalysis? If you are looking for evaluation for a matter pertaining to the legal system, you may want to look specifically for a forensic psychiatrist.
  • Finally, does it matter to you if the psychiatrist does psychotherapy or are you fine seeing one person for therapy (if necessary) and another for meds? If it matters, you need to clarify this upfront.

Now you’ve got the big three questions. There are other obvious ones: parking is always a biggy, the setting may be a concern (is your ex-lover working in the same practice?), how difficult is it to get an appointment? How long do appointments last? If the first evaluation is routinely scheduled for under 50 minutes and you have a choice as to where you go: then go somewhere else. In an institution—jails, a substance abuse clinic, the medical unit of a hospital, an emergency room— evaluations may be very brief, but in these settings your records may be available for review and the evaluation may have a very specific and limited purpose. But for a thoughtful, comprehensive evaluation before beginning on-going treatment, the usual is a minimum of 50 minutes and often 90-120 minutes. Some psychiatrists do their evaluation over several sessions.

If you have no insurance and no money, your options are limited. The traditional place for treatment in this case is a local Community Mental Health Center or CMHC and the standard has been to have one per geographic catchment area. These clinics usually offer split care, there may be a wait, and you don’t get to choose your psychiatrist. They take Medicare and Medicaid, and they sometimes don’t take private insurance. How do you find your CMHC? Try Google, and then call any clinic in your area and have a heart-to-heart with the receptionist. He may be able to give you the number of the clinic that serves you.

There are other agencies that over care for the indigent. In Baltimore, HealthCare for the Homeless offers psychiatric treatment, and The Pro Bono Counseling Project will give referrals for free or discounted care from professionals in the community who have agreed to volunteer their time. Again, there’s no choice in which psychiatrist you get.

If you have insurance and want to stay in network, call your insurance company for a list of names.

Aside from money concerns, here are the best ways to find a good psychiatrist:

  • If you know someone who likes their doc, see that doc!
  • If you know someone who like their doc, but you can’t see their doc, ask your friend to get some names from their doc, or call yourself.
  • Call your state psychiatric society and ask for a referral. If the office is located near where you live, the staff may well know some of the psychiatrists.
  • Ask your primary care doctor, they are used to making referrals.
  • Ask a psychiatrist. Ask any psychiatrist—they tend to know each other … so if you can get one on the phone, they may give you names even if they can’t see you. In our state, we have a psychiatric society listserv, and people frequently post, “Does anyone know a psychiatrist in Timbuktu?” for a patient who is moving, a child of a patient, friend of a friend of a friend. As a rule, psychiatrists don’t know what insurance networks other docs participate in.
  • Ask a doc, any doc. A random doc may not be able to help you, but they may. My favorite was the friend who asked me for a referral for a breast surgeon in another part of the state. Not something I’d know, but my neighbor the breast radiologist was able to give some names and so I was email-helpful. Between listservs, Facebook, email, etc…people can sometimes find names.
  • If you’re a student, try the school’s counseling/health center. They may also be able to suggest off-campus referrals.

What to ask on the phone (besides the obvious money issues):

  • It’s fine to tell someone the one-sentence version of what you want help for and to ask if they are taking new patients. It’s probably a burden to try to tell them your whole history.
  • It’s fine to ask how long the evaluation is, how long a typical appointment is, and if the doctor sees people for therapy or just meds.

Dinah Miller is a psychiatrist who blogs at Shrink Rap and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.

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