As a patient/health advocate, a common call is “I need to find a doctor. Who’s the best for _________ (fill in the blank?)” Should be a simple question, right?
Dictionary.com defines “best” as: “of the highest quality or standing: the best work, the best students; or “the most advantageous, suitable, or desirable: the best way. But here’s the rub: “Best” is a relative, not an absolute term. What may be best or right for me, isn’t necessarily best or right for you. So how to sort this out?
There are three buckets to typically explore to determine what’s best for you.
Bucket Number 1.
Qualities that are inherent to a physician that they can’t change, things like gender, participation in insurance networks, geographic location, office hours, number of years in practice. These are essentially data points that you can evaluate and rank based on your personal preferences and are fairly easy to research.
Bucket Number 2.
Other attributes that can require some digging to unearth. Attributes some patients might consider would be things like where a doctor went to medical school and did their residency, the reputation of the hospital or institution they are affiliated with now, and how much experience they have with your condition. A tool like The LeapFrog Group can help you evaluate hospital or institutional quality.
While it might be relatively easy to determine where a physician trained, it might be harder to find out what their experience is with your condition. If it’s not on their website, you can ask for a copy of their CV (Curriculum Vitae, the medical term for a resume) and see if they have published any research on your condition. You can call the office and ask how many patients they have in their practice with your condition. Academic physicians, those affiliated with a teaching institution, are more likely to know the answer to this question, but it’s also a question you can ask a physician face to face.
Experts also recommend verifying the physician’s license. The State Composite Medical Board lists any lawsuits or actions taken by the state Medical Board against the individual. A lawsuit or Board action in and of itself doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider becoming a patient in the practice, but the action will be clearly spelled out and will provide additional information. In Georgia you can find the data base here.
A recent data base published by the non-partisan ProPublica, also lists how much money a physician has been paid by drug or device manufacturers. Why is this important? Studies show that if doctors receive money from these businesses they prescribe and use more of the particular product. Knowing if your physician might be influenced in this way will help you at least be aware of a physician’s potential bias, since many of these medications and devices are brand names and more expensive than other equally effective alternatives.
Bucket Number 3.
Then we move to the “harder to quantify” things we might care about: Bedside manner, office staff, communication and follow up. You can get some sense of the office staff and communication by the way a call for information or an appointment is handled. Does the doctor use a portal for communication? When do they return phone calls? How do they inform you of test results? Too often though the only way to evaluate these kinds of qualities are either by recommendations from friends or simply making an appointment and checking it out for yourself.
What about online ratings?
Recent reports indicate that we are more likely to make an appointment with a physician with predominantly good on-line ratings even if there are a few negative ones. As with many things in our digital world, there’s often no way to verify that comments and ratings were submitted by real patients. In addition to independent sites like Healthgrades, many health systems solicit patient feedback after an appointment and publish those ratings on the physician’s web page. Keep in mind that upset patients are often more likely to post than happy patients. Nonetheless, these reviews can definitely give you a sense of a physician and their office, especially if there are multiple comments.
If a friend has recommended a physician, you might want to have a conversation about these buckets and see if what matters to them is what matters to you.
When you have enough information and schedule that first appointment, remember that while first impressions are telling, it can take time to build a relationship with a new physician. Especially with the time constraints on many appointments, unless you were completely turned off, it may take two or three appointments before you’re ready to commit to adding a doctor to your team.