Choosing a doctor is one of the most critical decisions we make. Our lives may even depend on it. Even so, choosing a doctor isn't usually met with any more attention than choosing a hairstylist or a plumber.
Until a few years ago, people mostly based choosing a doctor on the personal recommendation of a trusted friend or relative. "Hey Charlie, do you know a good doctor, my knee has been hurting?" Charlie would answer, "Well Joe, my Aunt Agnes has gone to Dr. Smith on Elm Street for years".
Now selection is often made from a list of managed care network physicians with the decision based on the sound of the physician's name or the location of the physician's office. Or, from a recommendation on the Internet.
Factors to Consider
Medical societies and consumer groups are urging that the decision incorporate important, available information such as a doctor's:
- academic history
- continuing medical education
- hospital affiliations
It is useful to know the doctor's specialty and subspecialty (the areas in which a doctor received between 3 to 7 years of additional training beyond medical school). It is not enough to know that a doctor is an orthopedic surgeon. You must also know if he is a specialist in knees or hands or other body part.
Board Certification and Continuing Education
A doctor who is board-certified has taken several extra years of specialty training and passed a rigorous board examination. Some boards require continuing education and periodic recertification too.
Information about a doctor's hospital affiliations will tell you if the doctor has privileges at a particular hospital and also serves to attest to his credentials. It is recommended that your primary care doctor have privileges where your surgeon does so that the primary doctor can manage your general care following a surgical admission.
What You Need to Know Before Choosing a Doctor
Research the following details when selecting a doctor:
- Inquire about the doctors' office hours
- Inquire about availability in an emergency, or a back-up physician
- Ask about the average wait during appointments
- Ask the number of patients booked per hour
- Ask if you can choose the specialist you wish to see
- Assess your general rapport with the doctor during an interview with him
- In selecting a surgeon find out how many times a year he performs a particular operation, then compare to national standards
- Look for F.A.C.S. after the surgeons name indicating he is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons
Along with certification and credentials, it is equally important to find a doctor who you can trust and with whom you have a good rapport. A combination of trust and competency is paramount to a good patient-physician relationship. It is obviously also important to know which doctors are covered by your insurance plan or HMO.
The American Medical Association's Doctor Finder has information on thousands of American doctors and is searchable by name, specialty, and location.
It is possible to find out whether a doctor has been fined or had his license suspended or revoked from the State Board of Medicine. The county courthouse offers information on lost malpractice suits, and there is also a book available called "Questionable Doctors" from the Public Citizens Health Research Group (nominal cost, updated each year).
Much information is available about doctors, both positive and negative, and it is our personal responsibility to retrieve it with our own well-being in mind.
Picking Dr. Right, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/20/98