Your persistent back pain means your primary care physician decides to refer you to a specialist. The doctor knows best, right? Possibly.

Often, finding the right specialist is not as simple as it sounds. It's important to be involved from the beginning, asking questions and researching the specialist before, during, and after your visit. Your back pain could have several underlying causes which determine what kind of specialist you need. Should you see an orthopedist, a neurosurgeon, a rheumatologist, or someone else?

The first step is a thorough examination and a careful diagnosis by your primary care physician. It’s also a chance for you to get involved and research your symptoms on the Internet. Online symptom checkers aren’t a substitute for your doctor, but they will help educate you about the possibilities.

Here are the steps to take to help ensure the specialist is right for you:

1. What to Do Before Your Visit?

Do your homework. Check with The American Board of Medical Specialties to see whether the specialist is certified in your state. Check your state board site for any disciplinary actions. Consumer Reports has a website with state-by-state resources on doctors, which provides information on licensing, patient experience, disciplinary action, and other useful information. You can easily research whether a doctor has been sued for malpractice. Keep in mind that even good doctors get sued, but multiple infractions should raise a red flag. You can check online doctor search and review sites to read doctor ratings, but be sure to evaluate the information you find carefully. Here's a handy checklist to help you figure out whether or not the specialist could be a good fit for you.

  • Referral: Ask your doctor for recommendations and referrals, but be sure to research their referral before making an appointment.
  • Research: Be sure to independently research specialists in your area by checking their certifications and reading patient reviews. If you find a specialist through independent research, you may still need a referral from your primary care doctor.
  • Insurance: Call your insurance provider and check with the specialist's office to make sure your insurance will be accepted. Inquire specifically about what is covered and how much out of pocket you will need to pay so you do not receive any unexpected medical bills.

2. Take Part in Your Treatment

Evaluate your specialist during that first appointment to see if this will be a good fit. Observe whether the office staff members are courteous and professional. Ask the staff about their billing policies and other administrative procedures like appointment reminders, test results and how to contact the doctor or nurse. When you're with the doctor, observe whether he or she is listening to you. If you don't feel comfortable with them, you may need to find another specialist. You should also arrive at your appointment prepared with questions. Their answers to the questions can help you decide whether they are a good fit for you. Be sure to take notes.

Here are some treatment questions to ask during that first consultation:

  • What do you think is causing my problem?
  • Could my problem have other causes or could more than one condition be contributing?
  • How certain is the diagnosis?
  • What tests will help diagnose my problem? 
  • Should you see other specialists?
  • How often has the doctor treated your condition?
  • If you will undergo a procedure, how many times has the doctor performed it?
  • What is the outlook for my condition?
  • Are there any side effects to the tests or any medication you're prescribing?
  • If my symptoms change, how and when do I contact your office?

3. Not Happy? Find the Right Match

If you're not happy with the specialist suggested by your primary care physician after that first appointment, feel free to research and suggest an alternative.

Where do you look? Use the same sites where you checked the background of the first doctor. Also, many advocacy organizations for specific diseases like The National Cancer Institute have doctor locator services or patient networks. If there is a university health center in your area, check there. Often, they offer the latest in treatments. For patients with a rare condition, the National Institutes of Health has a useful web page on finding the right doctor. As always, ask friends.

You don't have to tell a specialist you're seeking a second opinion, but you will need to have copies of your medical records with you. Make it a point to be sure you have access to all your records through your primary care physician and any specialist you see.

Specialists may be booked months in advance. If that's the case, it's a good idea to research a second specialist ahead of time and make an appointment. If the wait for the specialist referred by your primary doctor is lengthy, consider asking to make a change to someone who is available sooner.

Studies show patients who are involved in their care are healthier and have better outcomes. With the proliferation of information and reviews online, there's no excuse not to find a specialist who is a great fit for you.