Finding the right doctor can dramatically affect your autoimmune journey. Whether you’re undiagnosed, recently diagnosed, or well-versed in autoimmunity and hoping to add to your support team — if you’re wondering how to find the right doctor, for whatever reason, our ultimate guide can help. In this guide, we’ll take a deep look at autoimmune doctors: how to choose a doctor that meets your needs, preparing to meet a new doctor, and the importance of finding other health care providers (both conventional and holistic) who can help you achieve optimal wellness. At WellTheory, we’ve built a compassionate team of professionals, including Nutritional Therapy Practitioners and Health Coaches, who are dedicated to helping people navigate their autoimmune journeys. If you’re seeking to build your care team, you can read more about our approach here.
When Should I Seek an Autoimmune Doctor?
You know your body better than anyone else. As soon as you sense that something’s not right, you should see a doctor. If you experience any of the following symptoms that are common among people with autoimmune conditions, consider getting tested:
- persistent fatigue
- gastrointestinal discomfort, such as cramps, gas, or bloating
- unexplainable weight loss or gain
- muscle weakness
- skin rashes
- low-grade fever
6 Tips on How to Find the Right Doctor
Do Online Research
Most health care providers have an online presence. Look for reviews, podcasts, and blog posts shared by others with autoimmune conditions. Keep in mind that every person who meets with a health care provider has unique likes, dislikes, and needs. If a doctor you’re considering seeing has received a few negative reviews, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t well-suited to help manage your autoimmune condition. On the other hand, if they’ve received nothing but negative reviews, it may be a good idea to meet with other doctors first.
Consider the Logistics
There are situations where a perfect-on-paper health care provider may not be perfect for you. Therefore, when choosing a new doctor, you should consider the following:
- location: Where is the doctor’s office located? Will it be convenient for you to get there? Is it reachable by public transit? Are there any parking issues?
- insurance: With which hospitals is the doctor affiliated? Where are routine tests performed? Does your insurance cover care at these hospitals? Does the office process insurance claims, or will you need to pay upfront and seek reimbursement through your insurance provider?
- availability: What’s the wait time for an appointment? Is the health care provider available to see you urgently if necessary? If you call with a question or concern about your care, does a health care provider return your call reasonably quickly?
- office hours: Is the office open the same hours you typically work? If your job isn’t flexible and you can’t take time off for appointments, consider seeking a doctor who sees patients on weekends or weekday evenings.
Interview Your Potential Doctor
You hire your health care providers, just like you’d hire someone to do any other job. Start by writing out your goals, expectations, questions, and non-negotiable qualities ahead of your appointment. (We’ve provided a list of questions below!). Then, get a second, third, and fourth opinion, if necessary.
Check Out the Office Staff and Environment
An awkward or unwelcoming environment can make visiting the doctor a dreadful experience. Are the front desk staff and non-physician providers in the office friendly, non-judgemental, and accommodating? If not, you’ll need to decide if that will deter you from seeking care when you need it in the future. Does someone answer the phone when you call? Are missed calls returned promptly? When choosing the right doctor, it’s essential you consider the roles non-physician staff will play in your overall care experience.
Book a Test Run Appointment
Don’t feel you have to commit to a doctor because you’ve met with them for an initial appointment. Instead, treat it like a first date and see how it goes. Do you feel rushed or uncomfortable? Are they open-minded and skilled at solving problems? Do they listen intently when you detail your experiences and expectations?
Use Your Intuition
If something feels “off,” that may never change. You understand your goals and needs better than anyone else. Trust yourself if you meet with a new health care provider and leave feeling unsure or insecure. It may be best to move on. Pay close attention to the red flags. (And the green ones!)
How to Find the Right Doctor: Green Flags
Like every human on earth, every doctor has good and bad qualities. These are the qualities you should seek out in an autoimmune doctor:
- is an advocate for people with autoimmune conditions
- listens deeply and responds in a way that shows empathy and comprehension
- embraces a whole-body approach
- open to (and interested in) learning about your experience
- proactive about researching new treatment options for you
- informs you of all your treatment options and ensures you have the information you need to choose the best fit for you
- recognizes bio-individuality
- relentlessly looks for the root causes of symptoms
- promotes health instead of just treating disease
How to Find the Right Doctor: Red Flags
Again, no one’s perfect, but you should likely think twice before choosing a doctor who:
- believes you’re too young to be that sick
- suspects your symptoms are anxiety-based or in your head
- views medications as the first (or only) option for managing your symptoms
- makes you feel unimportant or naive
- uses fear to rush you into choosing a treatment option
- is hyper-focused on test results and uses “normal” lab results to play down your symptoms
- is difficult to get in contact with or doesn’t return your calls
- doesn’t make you feel heard or understood
Preparing for Your Appointment
Remember, your condition is a lifelong experience. Expressing something you’ve been experiencing for so long to someone who doesn’t know you can be challenging. To get the most out of your first appointment, you should prepare ahead of time.
Gather the Relevant Documents
Collect all your previous lab and imaging reports, as well as appointment notes from other health care providers you’ve met with. You have the right to request copies of your medical records from any health care providers who you’ve consulted in the past. It’s usually as easy as contacting the office and asking for a medical records request form.
Make a List of Your Medications
Your new doctor will need to know which medications you’re taking and how your body responds to them. They’ll also benefit from knowing which medications you’ve tried in the past and why you stopped taking them.
Write a Brief Version of Your Autoimmune Story
Include information about when your autoimmune symptoms started and what your earliest signs were. In addition, detail the progression of your condition and explain what life looks like with your medical condition right now.
Tips for Sharing Your Autoimmune Story
- create a timeline: When did you first notice that something wasn’t quite right? When did you first seek treatment? What interventions did you try and when?
- detail your most significant challenges: How does your condition affect your day-to-day life? Which symptoms affect you the most?
- don’t worry about judgment: A good health care provider won’t judge you for expressing your feelings and experiences. Don’t minimize the impact your condition has had on your life — you should be comfortable being vulnerable with your healthcare provider.
Write Down Your Goals and Expectations
By the time you leave your first appointment, your (potential) new health care provider should understand your goals and expectations. If you don’t share the same goals, or if the provider feels they can’t meet your expectations, it’s best you know that from the start, so you don’t waste any time finding a different provider.
How to Find the Right Doctor: Ask the Right Questions
To get the right answers, you’ll need to ask the right questions:
- What can I expect from my earliest appointments with you?
- How many patients have you treated successfully with my condition?
- What will this process look like? Will my treatment plan be tailored to fit my needs, or do you have a standard treatment plan for people with autoimmune conditions?
- How can I get in touch with you if I have questions about my treatment plan?
- Do you collaborate with other types of healthcare providers?
- How and when do you decide that a particular treatment plan is or isn’t working? Are you open to adjusting the plan if we don’t see improvements?
- Do you consider the roles of non-pharmaceutical treatments when creating a treatment plan?
- Do you use integral or functional medicine in treating your autoimmune patients?
What Types of Health Care Providers Help Manage Autoimmune Conditions?
Primary care doctors aren’t the only health care providers you should consider when building your autoimmune care team. Remember, doctors trained in Western medicine have a limited collection of tools. While a primary care doctor can play a key role in managing your autoimmune condition, the world they participate in is limited. An autoimmune care team should also include:
Which specialist doctors participate in your care will depend on which autoimmune conditions and symptoms you have. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, for example, you may need to see a rheumatologist. If you have Addison’s or Hashimoto’s, you may need to see an endocrinologist who specializes in conditions that affect (or are affected by) hormones. If you have IBD, you may need to see a gastroenterologist. Other specialist doctors commonly involved in autoimmune treatment are neurologists, immunologists, and dermatologists. Some diagnostic tests and treatment modalities are only accessible through specialist doctors, so a specialist will likely be a crucial part of your care team.
Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) or Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)
Having a chronic illness, autoimmune or otherwise, can take a toll on a person’s mental health. Licensed professionals who specialize in mental health care can help you manage the emotions associated with chronic illness and can support your healing process.
Nutritional Therapy Practitioners (NTPs) or Functional Nutritional Therapy Practitioners (FNTPs)
NTPs and FNTPs have a thorough understanding of the body’s inner workings, and they understand the role of holistic nutrition in achieving balance within the body. An NTP/FNTP will carry out a detailed assessment of your condition and symptoms and will work with you to identify and rectify the root nutritional causes of your symptoms.
A Health Coach who specializes in autoimmune conditions has a unique understanding of psychology, behavior, habits, and goal setting. They’ll use their working knowledge of diet, lifestyle, and nutrition factors to guide you through your autoimmune journey and help you understand what’s standing between you and your optimal quality of life.
Conventional vs. Holistic Medicine and the Value of Both
Conventional, or modern Western medicine, is mainstream medicine. It’s the care you typically get at a hospital or your primary care provider’s office. Modern Western treatments include pharmaceutical and surgical interventions. Medical doctors (primary care and specialist), physician assistants, nurses, and nurse practitioners all fall within this realm of medical care. Conventional medicine focuses on identifying a symptom or condition and treating it.
Holistic medicine takes a broader approach to health. Practitioners of holistic medicine recognize the influence of nutrition, lifestyle, support systems, and emotional wellness on overall health. Through a bio-individual approach, holistic treatments and therapies aim to correct the root causes of symptoms to improve a person’s condition, not just treat their symptoms. Naturopathic doctors, nutritional therapy practitioners, functional nutritional therapy practitioners, and various integrative and functional health care professionals are all holistic care providers.
Providers trained in conventional medicine may also choose to train in the holistic fields of functional and integrative medicine. Osteopathic doctors are considered both conventional and holistic practitioners.
Conventional medicine is strong in:
- diagnosing illness (though getting an autoimmune diagnosis can be a frustratingly slow process)
- emergency care
- surgical care
- pharmaceutical treatments
Holistic medicine is strong in:
- complex (or undiagnosable) chronic condition management
- identifying root causes
- improving symptoms through non-pharmaceutical treatments and therapies
Labs to Request When You Suspect You May Have an Autoimmune Condition
The right lab tests can help you better manage your symptoms and get an autoimmune diagnosis.
In terms of diagnostic testing, you’ll need to work with a primary care doctor who can order the traditional lab tests that may be useful in achieving a diagnosis (and that may be covered by your insurance provider, but be sure to check!) including:
- Complete Blood Count (CBC): Measures different components in your blood. A low white blood cell (WBC) count can indicate the presence of an autoimmune disease. (Source)
- Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP): Provides a snapshot of your body’s chemistry by testing a group of 14 substances. (Source)
- Immunoglobulins Panel: Immunoglobulins are antibodies. An immunoglobulins panel shows the types and levels of antibodies (produced by the immune system) in the blood. (Source)
- Antinuclear Antibody (ANA): Tests for the presence of antinuclear antibodies; antibodies that target normal proteins in the body. (Source)
- Vitamin D: Tests for a below-normal vitamin D level, which is linked to autoimmunity. (Source)
- Homocysteine: Homocysteine is an amino acid that aids in protein production. An imbalance can indicate the presence of an autoimmune condition. (Source)
- Anemia Panel: Anemia is a below-normal level of healthy red blood cells. It can indicate that a person’s antibodies target their red blood cells and cause them to burst. (Source)
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP): C-reactive proteins play a key role in immunity. They’re released by the liver in response to trauma, infection, and inflammation. High levels of CRP with no known cause can be a sign of an autoimmune condition. (Source)
- Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR): Looks at how quickly red blood cells settle at the bottom of a collection tube. Red blood cells that sink too quickly can signal inflammation. (Source)
- Complement C3/C4: C3 and C4 are two of the nine main complement proteins. A complement C3 or C4 test that shows malfunctioning or abnormal levels of these complement proteins indicates an autoimmune response within the body. (Source)
It’s worth noting that traditional labs often come back normal in people with autoimmune conditions. However, just because your labs are normal doesn’t mean they’re optimal. Results can be very useful in acquiring a diagnosis, but keep in mind that a normal lab result doesn’t mean everything is fine.
At WellTheory, we offer a range of advanced lab tests that are particularly useful in figuring out what may be triggering or exacerbating your symptoms, including gut microbiome analysis, food sensitivity tests, hormone panels, heavy metal analyses, environmental toxin evaluation, and more. Your WellTheory Nutritional Therapy Practitioner will work with you to decide which tests are best suited to meet your unique needs.
Beyond the Diagnosis
Finding the right doctor can help you get a diagnosis, but you shouldn’t rely on a diagnosis for validation. Too often, we focus on naming, treating, and blaming the condition instead of identifying the underlying causes. A diagnosis will undoubtedly affect the quality and effectiveness of your autoimmune treatment plan, but the “why” is equally important. While you’ll need to wait for a diagnosis to avail of some condition-specific pharmaceutical and clinical therapies, you aren’t powerless without those treatments. There are plenty of steps you can take to improve your condition and take control of your health while you and your care team work toward identifying the condition that’s causing your symptoms.
Staying Patient While Seeking an Autoimmune Diagnosis
Your autoimmune condition is just as unique as you are. No two people experience an autoimmune condition precisely the same way, and since many autoimmune conditions have overlapping symptoms, it can be difficult to pin down a diagnosis. Building a support system of other people with autoimmune symptoms or conditions can help you feel less isolated while you progress through your autoimmune journey.
Taking Control of Your Health
Whether you’ve gotten a diagnosis or not, found a great doctor or not, there are plenty of things you can do to take control of your autoimmune condition:
- find the root cause with a functional or integrative health care professional
- work with a health coach who can create an actionable plan that’s customized to meet your needs
- follow an elimination diet to find your triggers
- address past trauma with a qualified and licensed mental health professional
- focus on healing your gut
- eat an anti-inflammatory diet
- embrace low-intensity movement
- sleep 7–9 hours every night
- support your body’s drainage and detox pathways
- take supplements that meet your bio-individual needs
The Bottom Line on Finding the Right Doctor
Finding the right doctor can help you get a diagnosis and successfully manage your autoimmune symptoms. Still, you shouldn’t rely on a diagnosis to validate you, and you shouldn’t wait to find a great doctor to start improving your condition. A great doctor can be an invaluable tool but should be used alongside other autoimmune tools, such as nutritional therapy practitioners, health coaches, a gut-friendly diet that works for you, healthy habits, and a solid support system— like the one we’ve built here at WellTheory.