After your move to the United States, it is important to choose a family doctor (also known as a general practitioner) for primary care and regular check-ups. Family doctors take care of the entire family and are the first to turn to if you get sick. US doctors who want to work as family doctors have to complete a three-year residency before they can do so.
Family doctors are responsible for a wide range of medical services that go beyond diagnosing and treating illnesses. These services might include preventive care, health-risk assessments, immunizations, screening tests, and counseling on healthy lifestyles. Keep in mind that family doctors don’t all offer the same services. Some may simply not have the staff or equipment to perform certain medical procedures. They will then refer you to a specialist if necessary.
Before you turn directly to a specialist, try to find out if you have a PPO (Preferred Provider Organization) or HMO (Health Maintenance Organization) health plan. Patients on a PPO plan can make an appointment directly with a specialist in their network. If you have an HMO plan, however, you should visit your US doctor first and ask for a referral. Otherwise, your insurance may refuse to pay for it.
As is the case with dentists, it always makes sense to ask friends or co-workers for a referral. If they are happy with their family doctor, chances are that you will be too. But don’t stop there! It’s important to collect additional information before you settle on a certain US doctor. Find out about their office hours and which hospital they are affiliated with. How many US doctors actually work in the practice and, above all, do they accept your insurance?
Although the Affordable Care Act protects your right to choose any available primary care provider, this only applies to US doctors in your network and to plans which have been bought after March 23rd, 2010. That is why you should double check if the US doctor of your choice is part of your insurance plan’s network. During your first appointment, it is important that you feel comfortable with your US doctor. They should answer all of your questions and explain things in a comprehensible manner.
Try to always make an appointment beforehand. Sometimes you will only have to wait a few days, in other cases the waiting period might be a lot longer. Certain specialists, for instance, might be so highly frequented that you will have to hold out a few months in some cases. Even if you have to wait a while, you should try to show up to all your appointments (or cancel if you cannot make it).
Expats who are not fluent in the English language or feel like their language skills are not sufficient to explain their medical problems can bring along an interpreter. Depending on how personal the matter is friends and family members might be of assistance. However, even if you hire an interpreter, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable around them. Make sure to also ask your US doctor directly, as they might have a staff member who is able to translate for you.
Even if your health insurance covers a huge part of your medical treatments, there might be certain procedures that you will have to (partially) pay out of your own pocket. If you do not check with your US doctor and your insurance company in advance, you might quickly be faced with a hefty bill. It makes sense to talk to your doctor about your concerns in advance. They will be able to tell you how much your procedure actually costs and maybe even help you to talk to your insurance company. If you’re lucky, they will cover a bigger portion than you thought. If you visit a doctor’s office, clinic, or hospital for the first time also make sure to double check your bill. Some people have been charged for procedures which they never received or which their health plan should cover. The difference might amount to a few thousand dollars and raise your cost of living in the US immensely.
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