April 08, 2019

By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP

I’ve had three psychiatrists over the last 12 years. A social worker referred me to the first while I was hospitalized. My spouse selected the second using a “top doctor” guide. These two psychiatrists had excellent credentials. I stayed with each for five years, but my condition did not improve with either. I was reluctant to find a new one. I had shared many years of intimate and difficult details of my life with each, and I didn’t want to do it again. They assured me that they cared for me and were looking after my best interests. 
Eventually, I reached a breaking point with my second psychiatrist. She refused to change my medication regimen, which was causing me to sleep 14 hours a day. I impulsively decided I was going to find a new psychiatrist that would allow me to live again.

Through this process, I realized searching for the best psychiatrist for you requires incredible care, research and consideration. You should spend as much time finding one as you would buying a house or a car. Finally finding that third psychiatrist, the right one for me, has been essential to my recovery. 
Below are some of the steps you can take to find the right psychiatrist for you.  

Step 1: Search

I started by seeing who is out there and compiling a list of potential doctors.  
Asking for a Recommendation
Talking to any friends or family who also live with mental illness can be a great place to start. You can also ask your therapist or primary care doctor for a recommendation.
Searching Online Directories 
There are several online directories, but you should keep in mind that some only require a fee to be listed. A few of these directories include: American Psychiatric AssociationPsychopharmacologist GuideU.S. News & World ReportCastle ConnollyVitalsHealth Grades, and Psychology Today. Some psychiatry specialties also have their own professional guides such as Geriatric Psychiatrists.
Checking Medical Centers
Medical centers are often affiliated with medical schools. Check the best medical schools first in the U.S. News & World Report. One example is Massachusetts General Hospital–Psychiatry, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. These doctors work for the hospital, but often have a private practice as well.
Looking for Subspecialties
This is where I really started my search and spent the most time. I wanted someone with a subspecialty in bipolar disorder, including medication management. Doctors with subspecialties often treat more difficult cases; they have more specific knowledge in a narrow area such as addiction psychiatrists. The specialties often have their own organization. The organization website, such as the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, may provide tools to help find a specialist. 
Reading Medical Journals 
There was no directory for the bipolar specialty, so I researched reputable academic journals for authors who had written about bipolar. I researched PubMed and spent countless hours scanning publication titles, skimming relevant articles and assembling a list of names from my research. I was able to put together a lengthy list of doctors. I then googled each name to try to locate an email address for them. I emailed at least 50 doctors. I sent them each a very brief email as follows:
“I have been living with bipolar disorder for over 15 years and have experienced no improvement in my condition to date. If possible, I would be very grateful for a referral to a psychiatrist that specializes in bipolar disorder in the New York Area.”
These inquiries led me to two bipolar specialty clinics, which led me to my current, wonderful psychiatrist.

Step 2: Screen

Once you’ve identified a doctor or multiple doctors, you still have to screen them. The following are some important items to review:

  • Insurance: Do they take your insurance? 

  • Education: Where did they complete medical school, residency, post-residency?

  • Specialty board certifications: Do they have any certifications, such as psychopharmacology?

  • Areas of expertise: How relevant is their expertise to you? Do you want a generalist or someone with expertise in a subspecialty?

  • Academic affiliation: Do they teach psychiatry? If so, they may be more familiar with scientific research. 

  • Publications: Have they published any articles in peer reviewed journals or books, or produced any videos? 

  • Years of experience: Are you comfortable with their level of experience? 

  • Website: Does their website and description of their practice seem like a good fit for you? 

  • Search: Do they have any disciplinary actions or other issues that concern you?

Step 3: Consult

During your initial consultation try to assess the doctor’s fit and practice style. You should try to make a list of questions and bring a list of current medications, any testing records, health records, hospitalization records and psychological testing records to the consultation. 
I wanted a doctor that practiced shared-decision making—one willing to consider my life goals, answer my questions, address my concerns, provide options and help me reach the best course of action. I wanted to fully participate in my care unlike my previous psychiatric experiences. 
My psychiatrist was not conveniently located (a 3-hour round trip), but over time we found that Facetime consultations worked well. He was also out-of-network for my insurance, so was more costly than other options. However, I thought that the best care was worth the inconvenience and expense. 
I understand that not everyone is able to afford out-of-network care. So, if your insurance does not provide adequate coverage for the psychiatrist you’d like to see, you can always get a consultation with that psychiatrist. Then, take their recommended treatment plan to a general psychiatrist or even your primary care physician. 
It took a lot of research and time to find my doctor, but it was well worth it. Now I know I’m receiving the best care possible. He has helped me live a full and meaningful life since 2016. My only regret is that I didn’t conduct a thorough search sooner. We all deserve the best care possible. And while it’s out there, we may have to work hard to find it.
Author’s note: Thank you, Dr. Terence Ketter for referring me to my current doctor, Dr. Joseph Goldberg. Doctors know their colleagues best. We need a peer-nominated doctor directory.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City. 

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We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices. Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.


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