Choosing a doctor is one of the most important healthcare decisions you make. After all, you will rely on this person and their staff to notify you of needed appointments, recommend screenings, make accurate diagnosis and treatment recommendations to keep you healthy - and even possibly save your life. How can you know you are choosing a quality physician?
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Whether you are looking for a primary care doctor or a specialist to care for a specific condition, it’s important to remember that you ultimately make that decision. Taking this decision seriously, and doing a little research up front can help you make the best choice and provide peace of mind when you find yourself in need of their expertise.
Start with who’s on your list, then ask those closest to you
Often times, patients are limited in who they can see in order to get the maximum benefit of their healthcare insurance. Starting with this list will help narrow down your search. Most insurance companies have online lists categorized by your geographic location. The next best way to choose your doctor is to ask your friends, family and co-workers (who likely have the same insurance and list of providers as you). It’s an age-old system but it works fabulously because it’s likely the people closest to you have similar expectations and needs. In other words, if they are happy with the service and expertise of their provider, there’s a good chance you will be too. And if they aren’t happy or have had negative experiences, they may be able to steer you away from a bad choice. But remember, not everyone has the same experience or opinion – so ask your friends, family members, and co-workers, but ask them for specifics of their “good” or “bad” experiences. If using paper gowns instead of cloth, or not having electronic medical records was a huge deal to them and it’s not to you, you can put their advice in context.
Consider Your Specific Needs
When choosing a primary care physician, you may want to consider choosing an internist or family practitioner with a specific focus. For example, some family practice physicians have extra training or experience in areas such as travel medicine (do you like to travel out of the country a lot? You’ll need specific vaccines), geriatrics, sports medicine or women’s health. These primary care physicians can see you for wellness visits as well as meeting your specific lifestyle needs. Another consideration is seeing a specialist for primary care. For example, a woman going through a difficult menopause or having difficulty conceiving a child may want to see an obstetrician as their primary-care giver during that season of their lives. Those with chronic conditions may also choose a specialist for primary care, such as a patient with diabetes seeing an endocrinologist to simplify the process of frequent medication adjustments and monitoring. However, before you choose a specialist for primary care, be sure they are willing to perform the more general tasks required of a primary care physician.
Location, location, location
Just like in real estate, location is important when choosing your healthcare provider. Why? Because, although driving twenty minutes once a year for a well visit may not seem like a big deal, when you or someone you care for develops a condition or illness that requires frequent follow up visits, that trek is going to take a toll on your schedule. Perhaps you want to consider choosing a pediatrician close to home or near your child’s school, a gynecologist close to your work or a geriatrician between you and your siblings’ home so that you can share the job of taking mom there. Location may not indicate the quality of care, but it’s something to consider when choosing a physician you may be visiting frequently.
Some health insurance plans provide information for members on the professional and educational background and specialty certification of participating physicians, so that’s a good place to start. In addition you can consult these general websites:
American Medical Association Doctor Finder – Comprehensive information including educational history, board certification and hospital admitting privileges (40% of MDs belong to the AMA).
American Board of Medical Specialties – Board certification means the person has completed an approved residency program and passed a detailed written exam in at least one of twenty-four specialty areas, such as family practice, internal medicine or pediatrics.
Look online – a practice website and doctor review sites can give clues
Another way to “preview” a doctor is to view the practice’s website and online physician review sites. If the physician has updated their profile on these sites, you may see a photo of them and their facility, their current address and contact info in addition to a small blurb about their offerings. But most importantly you will see reviews posted by patients who have visited their practice. Be sure to look to see if there is a “see more reviews” option to click on; some sites hide reviews that they deem as suspicious for reasons that may not indicate they aren’t authentic – such as having several reviews posted in a narrow timespan, which could be because a physician had just updated his profile and encouraged patients to rate him after their visits. When viewing feedback ratings look for patterns. For instance, if 4 people say they had a positive experience, and one review is off the charts with angry accusations and ranting, you might consider that that one person may be acting in vengeance or have had an unrealistic expectation. Review sites are more likely to draw angry patients than the happy ones who never think about a need to tell other’s of their experience and some of these sites boost physicians to the top of the list because their hospitals are sponsoring the site. For these reasons, and others, review sites are not a litmus test for choosing a physician – but seeing a 5-star rating can really boost your confidence in choosing a physician after you’ve been given a recommendation or seen them on your list!
A practice website will likely communicate the values of the practice (do they strive to have the most updated technology and procedures for their field, or to roll out the red carpet in customer service) as well as give you a glimpse of the people who work there and the facility, along with the provider’s bio and sometimes testimonials, which of course were chosen for this purpose. The physician’s bio should include important information such as where they earned their degree and served their residency, which board certifications they have and medical associations they belong to.
Questions to ask yourself before choosing a physician may include whether age or sex of the doctor is important to you. For example, the years of patient experience accumulated by older physicians can be a significant advantage to some. However, if your priority is finding someone familiar with current evidence-based standards of care you may opt of a younger physician – or perhaps neither of these are of great importance to you. Consider whether or not it is important to choose a male or female, for instance a teen-age daughter or son may be more comfortable seeing a physician of the same sex.
Questions to ask the physician’s practice or the provider themselves may include access (how soon you can get in for an appointment), do they take questions by email or allow you to set up appointments or find out test results online through a patient portal, and policies that may affect you such as charges for copies of vaccine records or missed appointments. If you know you’ll need to be referred to a specialist, you might ask who they usually refer to.
In the end, it’s important to remember that you are not married to your physician. Most healthcare plans allow you to switch one or more times a year should you find yourself unhappy. Choosing a physician that you “click with” is just as important as their clinical skills in many cases because good patient-physician communication contributes to more open discussions about health issues and mutual participation in treatment decisions. When you are an active participant with a physician you trust, you’re more likely to follow treatment plans and experience a better, more satisfying outcome.