Building Your MS Healthcare Team
Do I need more than one healthcare provider?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had several doctors, or healthcare providers. Like most children, I had a pediatrician, although this is probably the only doctor that I don’t remember clearly. My parents also took me to a pediatric dentist whose office was quite colorful and fun. Eventually, my parents’ primary care doctor and dentist became my own doctors.
As a child, my hips and legs were somewhat crooked. I was pidgeon-toed. I had to wear special braces on my feet as a toddler and custom-made shoes for many years. But the doctor I most remember was my opthalmologist, aka the eye doctor. I began wearing glasses from the age of four and continued to see the same eye doctors (who worked as a team) well into my adult years. It took moving halfway across the country before I found a new eye doctor - just in time for my first case of optic neuritis in 2000.
There was nothing too extraordinary about my medical needs as a child, but still I had a large team of healthcare providers. It’s easy to see that even the healthiest of individuals should have at least three core healthcare providers, for primary care, eyes, and teeth.
Finding an MS doctor
Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis means that you will come into contact with several different types of healthcare providers. The most important doctor you will need is a neurologist, preferably one who specializes in multiple sclerosis.
Here are a few ways you can find an MS doctor in your area:
- Contact the National MS Society to request a list of recommended MS doctors.
- Search for an MS Center in your area that is part of the Consortium of MS Centers.
- Ask your primary care physician for a recommendation.
- Talk to other MS patients at support group meetings or dinner seminars hosted by pharmaceutical companies or MS organizations.
- Contact your insurance company for a list of preferred providers covered under your insurance plan; then cross-reference this list with suggestions from above.
Who else should be part of my medical team?
Routine care: As a person with MS, you need to continue routine preventative care, such as annual exams and routine testing (e.g. laboratory testing, mammogram, colonoscopy). Core members of a solid healthcare team - primary care physician, eye doctor, and dentist - can help to catch many illnesses in their early stages. Your primary care doctor can also help to coordinate care among specialty physicians.
Specialty care: Many MS clinics have an MS-certified nurse on staff in addition to an MS neurologist. The MS nurse can be on the frontline - coordinating care, providing patient education, and helping patients access services. If the MS nurse is also certified as a nurse practitioner, he/she can order tests and prescribe treatments. A common specialist for MS patients is the urologist, who is a physician who specializes in treating urinary and kidney problems, as well as sexual function.
Rehabilitative care: Physical/occupational therapists become important members of any comprehensive MS team. Contrary to what you might think, you do not need to be significantly disabled to benefit from the expertise of a therapist who works with neurological patients. A physiatrist is a doctor who specializes in physical medication and rehabilitation that may lead the rehabilitation team.
The physical therapist can help you develop an exercise program to improve strength, coordination and balance, teach you how to appropriately use mobility aids, and recommend fatigue-management strategies.
The occupational therapist can suggest home and work space modifications, adaptive equipment, and exercises to help conserve energy, function more efficiently, and improve quality of life. The occupational therapist can help you develop strategies to overcome cognitive issues and other MS symptoms.
The speech/language pathologist not only helps you overcome problems with speech and communication, but evaluates problems with swallowing. The speech/language pathologist works with the physical therapist and nutritionist to help teach you how to eat safely.
Mental health care: MS can lead to emotional changes and cognitive challenges. Licensed clinical social workers and psychologists are mental health professionals who evaluate mood changes (such as depression or anxiety), provide counseling services, connect individuals with services in their community, and help people navigate the challenges posed by MS. Neuropsychologists who specialize in the evaluation and treatment of cognitive changes can teach strategies to compensate for problems with memory, attention, and problem-solving.
Who is part of your personal MS healthcare team?
Do you have a fear of needles and take medication that requires injection?