Finding the Right Doctor

Selecting the right health care professional for you and your situation has become increasingly complex in recent years.  In the past, most people simply chose their doctors based on personal recommendations of close friends or family.  Communities were smaller, choices were fewer, and a doctor’s reputation was often well known.  Patients rarely conducted any formal physician research beyond simply asking a few friends.  These days, however, times have changed.  Populations have grown, families move easily and often from city to city and state to state, and new systems of health care providers and managed care organizations all make finding a good doctor an increasingly complicated process.

InjuryBoard has conducted research and interviews with experts to bring you the most comprehensive suggestions on how to find a qualified, prudent, intelligent physician to treat you and your family.  As you read in our How to Stay Safe and Avoid Medical Malpractice article, when you allow a physician to treat you, you are placing your life in that person’s hands.  By using the following list of tips and questions to ask, you can take steps toward making sure you find the right doctor.

Research the Doctor’s Qualifications

Although this tip may seem overly obvious, qualifications are a crucial and often overlooked factor in finding a good physician.  Many people assume that practicing physicians are always properly licensed and qualified.  While this is most often the case, it is not always true.  Beyond a basic license, here are some other things to consider when checking out a doctor’s qualifications:

Academic History – A good education is the most basic of all qualifications.  Find out which medical school your potential doctor attended, and make sure he or she received a degree.

Board Certification – Board certification requires doctors to complete several extra years of specialty training and pass a demanding board examination.  Each board has different requirements.  Some of them require continuing education and periodic recertification to ensure that doctors remain knowledgeable about the latest technological advances and procedures.  Although board certification does not guarantee physician excellence, it allows average consumers to be certain about a physician’s training.

Continuing Medical Education – Continuing medical education generally consists of educational activities that help to maintain, develop, or increase a health care professional’s knowledge, skills, and professional performance.  An ideal physician needs more than just a medical degree.  Before committing to a doctor, make sure that he or she has satisfied all the requirements to maintain certification and is up-to-date on the latest medical technology.

CLICK HERE to research potential doctors in your area

Find a Doctor with the Right Specialization - You wouldn’t hire a foot doctor to operate on your brain, and despite being fully qualified in his or her field, a doctor with a specialty that’s not related to your accident or illness does not have a good chance of helping your condition.  A knee problem might require an orthopedist’s attention, but an orthopedist that specializes in hands is not going to be able to give you the same specialized treatment as an orthopedist who has been trained to work on knees. 

When searching for a doctor, find out about the doctor’s specialty and subspecialty.  These are the areas of medicine in which a doctor will have received between three and seven years of additional training after completing medical school.  That could make an important difference in your health.  Asking the right questions about specialization can help you find the right doctor.

CLICK HERE to search physicians by specialty of practice

CLICK HERE to check out your specialist's credentials

Hospital Affiliations

Different doctors have privileges to practice at different hospitals in your area.  You may wish to consider a doctor’s hospital affiliations prior to becoming a regular patient.  You will want your doctor to have hospital privileges at a hospital close to your home.  It will also be beneficial to you if your primary care doctor and your surgeon both have privileges at the same hospital.  This way, your primary care physician can manage your general care following surgery.

Asking the Right Questions

It is a good idea to visit a doctor’s office before you commit to becoming a regular patient so you can personally ask some important questions and observe the day-to-day office operations.  Here are some relevant questions:

  • What are the doctor’s office hours?
  • Is the doctor accepting new patients?
  • Is the doctor part of a group of physicians?
  • If so, how many members are in the group?
  • What is the doctor’s availability during emergencies?
  • Is there a back-up physician for emergencies?
  • What is the average wait during appointments?
  • On average, how many patients are scheduled per hour?
  • May the patient choose the specialist he or she wishes to see?

If the doctor is a surgeon...

  • How many times per year does the physician perform a particular operation?  (compare with national standards)
  • Is the surgeon a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons?  (Designated by the title “F.A.C.S.” after his or her name?)

In addition to asking specific questions, you should pay close attention to other aspects of your visit.  Did you get along with your physician?  A doctor-patient relationship should be a partnership with the patient’s health and well-being as the goal.  A good relationship often requires a doctor who is friendly, patient, honest, and sensitive to your needs and insecurities.  If the physician resents your desire to ask questions or behaves in an unfriendly manner, you may wish to reconsider that physician as a candidate.

CLICK HERE to learn more about most licensed physicians in the United States, including training and board certification

Warning Signs

In previous sections, we’ve laid out which qualifications and certifications you should look for in a good doctor.  Those things are important, but you should also look for any warning signs that might be present.

Negative Citations – Be aware of any negative citations a doctor has received.  You can check the State Board of Medicine to find out whether a doctor has ever been fined or had her license suspended or revoked. 

Malpractice Lawsuits – Malpractice lawsuits against a doctor may also provide insight into his ability (or inability) to treat patients.  You can find information on lost malpractice suits at your county courthouse. 

Also, the Public Citizen organization's Health Research Group publishes information entitled “Questionable Doctors.”  Updated each year, this book offers detailed information on doctors who have been disciplined.  Even a good doctor can have a lawsuit filed against him/her by a disgruntled patient, but if you notice that several patients have filed lawsuits against a particular physician, the pattern may indicate that this is one doctor that might be better left to someone else.

CLICK HERE to learn more about disciplinary actions or medical malpractice suits filed against your doctor or a doctor you may be considering

Other Things to Consider

The following items may have nothing to do with a doctor’s training or level of care, but they may still have an important impact in your relationship:

Insurance Coverage – During your search, be aware of which doctors are covered by your HMO or insurance plan.  Remember that your HMO plan may require a referral or authorization from your primary care physician before scheduling a visit to a specialist.  Your quest for the right physician may end in frustration if you fail to take into account insurance coverage.

Gender of Physician – Discussing your health issues and concerns can be an extremely personal experience.  Take steps to ensure that you are comfortable discussing any and every medical situation with your doctor.  If the gender of your doctor is important to your comfort level, you should consider only doctors of that gender.

Language Barriers and Communication – For the average patient, understanding medical jargon is a difficult task in itself.  It becomes even more complicated when you choose a physician who is unable to communicate clearly in your primary language.  Don’t let language be a barrier to your well-being.  Choose a health care professional who communicates clearly in your primary language to make sure you’re being understood and you properly understand what’s being said.

After you’ve taken into account all the issues in this section, you should be left with a small but qualified pool of good candidates to choose from.  But even if a doctor seems perfect according to all the measurements you’ve read and considered, be sure to always trust your instinct.  If you feel uneasy about a particular doctor, eliminate him from your list of potential doctors even if his credentials are impressive.  Remember, more than anything else, you should always feel comfortable with your doctor.

Moving On

After reading this section, you may come to realize that you’re in a professional relationship with a doctor who might not be the right doctor for you.  If so, then start the process of finding a new doctor and prepare to move on from your current physician.

CLICK HERE - for ten important reasons to move on from your current doctor

Read the next article in the series:  Malpractice - What To Do When A Doctor Gets It Wrong 

Contact an attorney in your area.