How to Choose the Right Doctor
Illustration Credit: Bibadash/Shutterstock
In general, the whole doctor-patient dynamic is often set up as if they’re the expert and you’re the supplicant. However, the ideal patient-doctor relationship is one where you view yourselves as partners with the shared goal of keeping you healthy and well.
As a child, I would often accompany my great-grandmother, a.k.a. Nana, to the doctor, along with my mom. I learned from Nana the importance of developing a relationship with your doctors. Nana’s doctors knew about her life and therefore treated her like a person, not just another file, and I believe that contributed to them giving her superior care. Nana also made sure she understood what medicines or procedures they were prescribing and why. She would also question whether there were alternatives if something had side effects that she wasn’t a fan of, or if their directives just didn’t sit well with her.
She would always joke that her doctors looked at her at every appointment like they couldn’t believe she was still walking in to see them. My mom and I learned after her death that she had outlived their predictions by many years. I believe part of why she lived so long was that she was in an active partnership with her physicians.
Now as an adult, I’m my mom’s companion for her medical appointments, and her doctors fondly refer to me as “the doctor daughter.” Of course, I’m invested in my mom having the best care, and I’m genuinely curious about their treatment plans, so they enjoy answering my questions. And they not only welcome my input regarding her care, but they actually seek it out because it makes their job easier. They also appreciate my involvement because I’ll tell them the truth about how well my mom is following their protocols.
Regarding my own care, I learned at an early age that ultimately I had to be the person most responsible for my health.
The way I see it, while I’m not a medical professional, I am the only one living in my body 24/7/365; therefore, I’m the expert on me and I look to my healthcare professionals to partner with me in providing the best care. Again, it’s a partnership, not a dictatorship.
So how do you find the best doctor to partner up with? Here are 10 pointers to help you find the best doctor for you:
1. Ask Around
If you already have a doctor or specialist you like, ask them whom they would recommend for your additional medical needs. Doctors are people, too, and tend to gravitate toward like-minded physicians.
For example, if you have a primary-care physician whom you love — and part of what you appreciate about them is they tend to favor the least-aggressive treatments first — then it’s likely they support your medical philosophy. So if you find yourself needing a specialist, there’s a very good chance they will recommend someone who shares that philosophy.
Another benefit of having doctors who know and respect each other is they’re more likely to work as a team should you need a procedure or find yourself facing a health crisis.
Also ask your friends, family, and coworkers. They can all provide suitable referrals, since your friends might have good ideas about whom they think you’d vibe with; family members might share similar health issues; and suggestions from coworkers can be helpful, since their doctors might also be covered under the same plan.
2. What Do You Want?
Next, be clear on what you’re looking for from the doctor, especially regarding your communication. Do you want the kind of personalized care where you can text or call the doctor with urgent matters or questions? Or are you okay with having their physician assistant or any doctor in their group respond to you?
3. The Front Office
Also, remember that a lot of your interaction with the doctor is through their front office staff, so it’s worth taking them into consideration as well.
Find out what their process is for refilling prescriptions and who will call you with test results. Do they call or send reminder texts for visits, or even postcards, like my dentist’s office does? And what’s their cancellation policy?
When reading online reviews, look out for comments about the office staff. Have people noted that they’re always canceling or rescheduling appointments, or that the wait time for appointments is consistently too long? Is the office staff friendly? The head nurse at my gynecologist’s office greets me — and all the patients — in such a warm way that I feel like I’m visiting with old friends. And is the office itself clean and pleasant? One of my doctors’ offices is so nice, it’s like visiting a spa!
4. Money, Money, Money
Determine what their billing process is like. Do they accept your insurance and bill the insurance company directly? Or are you expected to pay at the time of service and make your claims to the insurance company?
5. Check Them Out
Make sure any doctor you’re considering is board-certified. This means they’ve received training beyond medical school and continuously update their skills. The American Board of Medical Specialties updates its board-certified list daily.
You should also call your local or state medical society to see if there have been any grievances filed against any of the physicians you’re considering.
Now, let’s say you’ve done your research by asking your doctors, polling your friends, checking their certifications, and reading online reviews. It’s time to make a move.
6. First Impressions
Some doctors will agree to a brief telephone “interview” of sorts where you talk for a few minutes to see if you’ll be a good fit. Or you might have a brief, in-person consultation.
During this call or visit, you should be prepared with specific questions about the reason you’re going to see them. For example, perhaps you’re newly pregnant and looking for an ob/gyn. You might want to ask their ratio of vaginal births to cesarean sections if you have a strong preference for one or the other.
If they’re in a group, you’ll probably also want to know if they will definitely be the one performing the delivery. I’ve had friends who were disappointed that they saw one doctor throughout their pregnancy, only for a random doctor from the group to show up at the delivery. Of course, there are times when that can’t be avoided, but it’s good to know up front how they typically operate.
It’s also helpful to find out a doctor’s philosophy regarding tests. Some order tests only if something is wrong, and then might not even share the results with you. For example, a dear friend recently underwent surgery to remove a dermoid cyst from her ovary. She was in pain for weeks and had been to at least three doctors who couldn’t find the problem. Finally she went to a urologist who pulled all her records and discovered the cyst had showed up on a scan years earlier and had been marked as “normal.” Dermoid cysts aren’t normal; they could be benign and not causing trouble, but they aren’t normal. In the years since it was first noted, it had grown to the point where it was pressing on her ureter (the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder) so much that it had changed the shape of the ureter, and that was what was causing the pain.
When she told me about what happened, I asked why her ob/gyn hadn’t spotted the growth during her annual exams, and she told me that she hadn’t had a pelvic ultrasound since her last pregnancy, which was almost 10 years earlier. I was shocked. After the procedure, she learned that the surgeon had removed another cyst from her other ovary, along with polyps from her uterus. All of these issues could have been addressed before a problem arose, had her doctor performed a simple ultrasound.
So it’s important to find out how the healthcare providers you’re considering view and use tests. For myself, if a doctor didn’t want to do routine ultrasounds, I’d ask them if they have ultrasound eyes, and when they say no I’d tell them to get that wand out. The same goes for mammograms, echocardiograms, a colonoscopy, or just blood work.
Some doctors wait for pain or some other issue to indicate a problem before they order tests; others view their role as healthcare providers to be proactive by preventing a problem before an intervention is needed.
It’s also good to find out if a doctor is able to perform tests in their office. It makes scheduling easier and you’ll typically get the results sooner. Another consideration regarding tests is to find out how they share results with other doctors.
8. Do They Play Well with Others?
I’ve found that some doctors treat any healing modality with disdain if it isn’t Western medicine. If your acupuncturist, chiropractor, or biofeedback doctor is an active part of your healthcare, make sure your doctor will be in agreement with this type of treatment. You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you feel you have to choose between practitioners, or worse yet, hide the supplements or herbs your nutritionist or Eastern medicine provider prescribes from your Western doctor. Ideally they’ll work cohesively to help you reach your desired goal.
9. Keep It Simple
You also need to consider basic logistics like, where is this physician located? What’s the parking situation? Remember, you might be going there when you’re feeling less than 100 percent, so make sure it’s easy for you.
10. Trust Your Gut
After you’ve had your initial interview or first visit, ask yourself how you felt about the interaction. Did you feel comfortable talking with them? Were they actually listening to you? Did they explain things in a way that you understood, and were they open to follow-up questions? Is this a person you want to deal with when you’re under the weather or in a crisis?
Ultimately, you have to trust your intuition when making the decision. The doctor you’re considering might be the head of the department in their field of care and have a five-star rating online, but if you didn’t feel safe, seen, and supported in their presence, then they are not the best doctor for you.