How to Find a Good Doctor: 18 Steps to Help You Choose the Right Physician
Finding the right doctor can be a pretty daunting task.
If we’re honest, most of us probably spend 15 minutes browsing through online reviews, maybe we ask a few friends, and we land on what seems like a good choice.
But you have to ask yourself: what are you missing? Do you really have the best doctor?
We’ve picked the brains of two healthcare experts to bring you 18 steps that will help you choose the right physician.
Michelle Katz, Lpn, MSN is a Healthcare Consumer Advocate. She has written several books on saving money on healthcare, and she has helped build healthcare programs around the country.
R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D, is the Founder and President of Tree of Life Health Advocates in San Francisco. For more than 30 years, Ruth was a professor and researcher in academic medicine, public health, and health policy. In her work as an independent health advocate, she helps her clients choose the right team of physicians and resolve other healthcare challenges.
1. Pinpoint what matters to you
Before you start sifting through Yelp reviews or the list of in-network providers from your insurance company, it’s important to evaluate what you’re actually looking for in a doctor.
Michelle advises that you treat this like you’re dating – yes, dating. She explains, “Make a list of 3-5 things that are really important to you. When you have that list, then you can read reviews and talk to people.”
This is important, because you might find a rave review explaining that the doctor was very quick, and that you always get in and out within 10 minutes. But perhaps one of the most important things on your list is that your doctor takes his time and doesn’t make you feel rushed.
Having a short must-haves list where you can actually compare people’s opinions to what’s important to you is critical – it’s the first thing you should do before you even start looking.
Beyond personality traits and mannerisms, you also need to consider how the doctor goes about making treatment suggestions.
Ruth advises that you spend some time reflecting on various treatment preferences. She explains that you should ask questions like: “Am I looking for an allopathic physician? Or am I looking for an acupuncturist? What about a homeopathic provider? Or a combination of these?”
In case you’re unfamiliar with these terms, here are some brief definitions:
- Allopathic treatment is the method of treatment taught in medical schools and training hospitals. This system of medical practice aims to fight disease using drugs and surgery.
- Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine where very thin needles are inserted into your body. This form of medicine is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine.
- Homeopathic medicine embraces a holistic, natural approach to treatment. This method works to treat the person as a whole – not necessarily the “diseased part.”
So, before you start any serious research of physicians, it’s important to understand what you’re looking for. What type of doctor do you want, and what treatment philosophy is important to you?
2. Consider gender
It’s not sexist to eliminate your options by gender. Some people feel more comfortable being examined by a female, and others prefer a male.
Ruth encourages everyone to acknowledge this within themselves: “Pay attention to that need. There’s a reason for it. It matters. Don’t go see male doctors if you’re not comfortable seeing male doctors. Honor your needs.”
3. Consider your insurance network
For most of us, it’s important that we choose a doctor that’s in our insurance network. However, before you eliminate every other doctor, Ruth advises you to pause and consider a few things.
“You need to ask yourself: am I a simple patient or a complex patient? If I have complex needs, it’s going to be more challenging to find a physician that can handle my care that’s in my insurance network. If I’m a 22-year-old male, and I only go in for a yearly physical, it’ll be a lot easier for me to find a doctor in my insurance network.”
Many people don’t have the financial means to go outside of their insurance network, but Ruth still advises that you don’t automatically cut all out-of-network doctors from your search.
Michelle follows this same line of thinking. Some doctors don’t accept Medicare, but she explains that some doctors will work with you.
“My grandmother had a physician that she had for 30-something years – she’s 93 years old. Their partnership has lasted longer than many marriages. At one point, he decided he wasn’t going to accept Medicare anymore because he wasn’t being reimbursed enough.”
That left Michelle’s grandmother in a tricky spot, because replacing him would be nearly impossible, but she couldn’t afford to see a doctor that didn’t accept her insurance.
Michelle continues, “I told my grandmother to ask her physician if they could work something out. First of all, he petitioned to be on her specific Medicare Advantage plan, and in the meantime, he worked out a very cheap rate for her. Part of the deal is that she has to bake her famous poppyseed strudel and bring it with her.”
In some situations, doctors will go the extra mile in requesting to be a part of your insurance network, and in other cases, they’re willing to work with you. Doctors who seriously care about the wellbeing of their patients – and oftentimes, doctors who run their own practices – will be willing to cut you a deal.
A doctor who wishes to remain anonymous due to compliance rules explained to us, “A few years ago, one of my patients didn’t have the money for an ear mold. I asked him what he did have, and he said he had ears of corn. I told him I liked corn, so he traded me corn for the ear mold. We’ve done the same thing for other patients – everything from line dancing classes to jars of honey. A lot of healthcare providers are simply after the best health of their patients.”
So, perhaps you could start your search by looking at in-network doctors, but if none of those options seem to align with your needs and values, it’s worthwhile to start looking outside of your network.
However, if it is crucial that you choose an in-network physician, be sure to confirm with the doctor and the insurance company that they are in fact in-network. This information can sometimes be out-of-date.
4. Read online reviews, but be careful
It’s how we judge everything from beauty salons to restaurants – just Google it, and read the reviews! From Facebook to Yelp, there are usually loads of reviews to sift through that can give you an initial impression of a business.
And while this should be part of your doctor shopping process, there are some things to be aware of.
Michelle explains, “Some doctors actually hire PR agencies to write fake reviews and give them 5 stars. How do you know that doctor is being honest?”
A few ways to pinpoint fake reviews are to look for vague statements like “The staff is very professional” and “The staff and doctor are very friendly.” Also look for carefully worded statements that sound like they come straight from a brochure.
For example, one Google review of a doctor’s office says, “In a short amount of time together we crafted a custom treatment plan based upon my individual healthcare needs.” While it may be a genuine review, it should raise your suspicions. Most people don’t write so eloquently, and there are generally a few typos in genuine reviews.
Michelle continues, “If you’re only looking online, look at reviews that are very specific. For example, if a person goes into detail about their condition or their insurance situation, it’s likely to be a genuine review.”
You can also tell a lot about a doctor and his staff by reading negative reviews.
Here are two examples of doctors who have responded to online reviews. Which doctor would you rather visit based on the response?
Michelle says, “Not all doctors have a chance to respond to negative reviews, but they have staff. If the staff works together to help that doctor out, it says a lot. If no one is responding, you can conclude that perhaps they just don’t care and they’re only there for their paycheck. Now, I have to say that maybe the office is just so busy that they don’t have the time, but is that the office you want to go to? An office that’s too busy to respond?”
5. Talk to the locals
Talk to your family and friends in the area and get some feedback about doctors they’ve liked (and maybe disliked!).
Michelle advises that you ask for specifics – what did they specifically like or dislike about that doctor? This is important, because again, your goals and values might be very different from your friends.
Michelle explains, “Did you like that they called you? Did you like that they held your hand through this or that they left you alone? Would you like it if your doctor texted you with updates, or would you hate that? Do you prefer a very talkative doctor or a quiet one?”
Everyone’s opinions are going to be based on their own likes and dislikes, so while getting feedback from family and friends is a huge help, be sure to understand the feedback thoroughly before making any decisions.
6. Consider a doctor with publications
Has your doctor written any publications? Do they write on an online blog? If the answer is yes, you know that doctor has expertise, and they clearly have a passion for what they do.
However, there is a line that can be crossed – Michelle warns you to stay away from doctors that spend too much time on TV appearances and the like.
“You shouldn’t be on TV more than you’re in the office. The other day, I saw a doctor who left in the middle of a segment because one of her patients needed her. To me, that was impressive. That doctor put her patients first,” says Michelle.
7. Look for lawsuits
Michelle says that you can always take things one step further by researching the doctor’s record. “Take a look at their public record to see if they’ve been sued. How many lawsuits have they had? Are they the same types of lawsuits?”
If so, this can be a huge red flag. You might consider crossing this doctor off the list if you have other options still on the table. If you were set on this doctor but find some unsettling information, it might be worthwhile to call and ask about it.
Keep in mind that with lawsuits, many doctors will complain that there are frivolous lawsuits, and there are also serious cases that settle out of court. Michelle advises that you consider this with everything else mentioned.
8. Research the hospital
While you want to research the doctor, many people forget that the hospital is important, too.
Ruth explains that you can go to http://www.leapfroggroup.org/compare-hospitals in order to research the hospital, though you won't find everything. Here, you can see information about inpatient care management, medication safety, infections and injuries, and more.
However, it’s important that you research the service you’ll actually be on.
Ruth says, “If you’re having open heart surgery, you want to know how many of those surgeries are performed in that hospital – and what the outcomes are.”
Sometimes, you can find that information on the hospital’s website, and if you can’t find it, you need to ask.
9. Consider your specific medical conditions
While you research the hospital and gather information about their success rates, you need to do the same for your specific doctor.
Ruth explains, “If you need surgery and your doctor says they’ve only performed 5 of those surgeries in the past 12 months, you want to look somewhere else. If it’s an extremely rare surgery, you may not find a doctor that’s done hundreds of them, but you do need to do your research. This is why having a healthcare advocate can be important – that individual can do this research for you to make sure your doctor is experienced enough and has great outcomes.”
Research shows that the more a physician performs a surgery, the better they are at it.
Even if you aren’t having a specific surgery performed, you still want a doctor that’s very familiar with any conditions you might have.
Michelle explains, “A lot of times, those doctors are so focused on that condition that they know the side effects as well as how the condition might affect the right of your body. However, some would disagree and say that a laser-focused doctor might not catch other conditions that come up.”
10. A willingness to refer you
That brings us to our next tip – is the doctor willing to refer you out to a specialist when needed?
If you have a specific medical condition or situation, and you chose a doctor that’s very educated on it, you still want that doctor to admit when new symptoms or conditions are outside their expertise.
Michelle says, “If your doctor is hesitant to refer you, they may actually over test you to figure out what your condition might be instead of letting you go to a specialist. You have to have a doctor that’s willing to let you go.”
11. Call the office beforehand
You’re always going to deal with the staff, so calling the office and getting a feel for how the office staff handles your questions can be a huge help when narrowing down your doctors.
“You can approach this in two ways – you can either call when it’s a busy time to see how they handle you, or you can call when it’s not busy to give them a break,” says Michelle.
Michelle does say that everyone can have a bad day – it happens. That’s why calling a couple of times on different days can give you a better overall picture of what that practice is like.
However, if the office is rude over the phone, that can say a lot about the doctor – after all, they are his employees.
12. Consider how busy your doctor is
If you call the office, and they say they’re booked out for the next 3 months – is that a deal breaker for you?
Michelle explains that it can go both ways – on the one hand, a busy doctor can sometimes mean it’s a great doctor. However, you have to ask yourself if you really want to be seeing a doctor that’s so busy.
“That doctor may be great, but if she’s too busy, she’s not going to be that great. She’ll rush through your appointment, and you won’t get the same level of care.”
13. Email the doctor
Sometimes, you can find the doctor’s email. If you’ve called the office a few times and the staff was rude, it can be worthwhile to take this extra step.
Michelle says, “Finding good office staff is hard. Doctors can’t pay that much – the days of doctors making a lot of money isn’t true anymore. So, if you can write the doctor and explain your experience, I would. I’ve even had someone ask the doctor: ‘do you want me as a patient?’ That doctor actually replied and went above and beyond.”
14. The waiting room wait time
Once you do narrow down your options and you’ve booked an appointment, you’re undoubtedly going to experience the waiting room.
How long do you have to wait before you’re seen by the doctor?
Ruth says, “I always try to remember that the doctor who keeps you waiting is the doctor who will keep others waiting when it’s your turn. And for a lot of people, that’s what they want. They don’t want be rushed.”
So, it’s important to always think about this with some perspective. That doctor might be taking an extra 20 minutes to tell a patient about a cancer diagnosis. Would you want a doctor who would keep others waiting if you were in the same situation? Or would you rather have a doctor that gave you the news and ushered you out?
15. Appointment length
This brings us to our next important step – be sure to take note of how long your actual appointment is.
“If you go in with a concern, and your appointment is only 2 minutes long… that’s a big red flag,” says Michelle.
You want a doctor who will take the time to listen to your concerns and who won’t rush you. Again – a busy doctor is not going to catch certain symptoms and concerns as well as a doctor who is taking his or her time.
Ruth explains that this issue actually goes deeper than we may like to think: “Recent studies have demonstrated that physicians interrupt patients after 18-23 seconds. A doctor that can listen is crucial. Patients will often give physicians the diagnosis themselves – a diagnosis isn’t always rooted in scans. It’s often revealed through talk.”
16. The substance of the appointment
How did the doctor communicate with you during the actual appointment?
Michelle says, “If the doctor has his or her back turned to you the whole time, is just taking notes, and just writes prescriptions without asking you any questions or explaining anything, that’s a red flag. You want a doctor who pays attention to your reactions and your body language. It’s a huge part of medicine that some doctors are forgetting.”
Even if you tend to prefer quick appointments, you should be aware that a doctor who does things too quickly and doesn’t give you time to talk about your symptoms is likely missing important information.
You also have the right to ask questions and leave that appointment fully understanding everything from your symptoms, potential conditions, any prescriptions, and whatever else might be relevant. You shouldn’t leave an appointment with questions.
17. Come prepared with questions
But you should enter an appointment with questions! It can be tough to tell whether or not your doctor is keeping up with current medical research, but Michelle says that one way to find out is to come with questions.
“Do your research beforehand and ask questions like, ‘What do you think about this procedure or treatment?’ If the doctor says, ‘Well, I just don’t like it,’ you can tell that the doctor may not be very knowledgeable on the subject at hand.”
18. Listen to your gut feeling!
At the end of the day, your gut feeling counts.
Michelle says, “It’s like a first date. You’re meeting the family – the family is the office staff. And if they’re unhappy, that can say a lot about the doctor. Just go with your gut feeling.”
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