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11 things to look for in a good doctor and how to be a good patient

By January 2, 2012No Comments

The doctor-patient relationship is an interesting subject.  You go to a doctor trusting they’ll give you good advice, provide expert care, and always have you best interests at heart.  The doctor, on the other hand, needs you to give them all the information and cooperation necessary to make good decisions and give great treatment. Both of you must work together properly for this to all work out well.  Oh, and it helps if you actually like the doctor and she or he treats you with equal respect as a partner in your healthcare decisions. We’ve all had doctors that do and don’t fit this bill. So how do we know who will be good without investing time with several visits, or even enduring poor care? There is no perfect way, but here are a few suggestions from someone who hangs out with lots of doctors.

First, do your homework.  Asking your friends and family for a recommendation is a start, but after that you need to go a few steps further. Check them out online next. There are numerous websites that grade doctors (i.e. HealthGrades).  I find most of these are only good if the doctor has wronged a lot of people and they have gone online to voice their concerns. Multiple bad reviews may be a sign you should look elsewhere. If half the reviews are copious exalting praise and the other half say he is Satan’s intern, you are back at square one. You can also check the state medical board for any sanctions against the doctor.

Next, when calling for an appointment, ask the secretary about the doctor’s credentials.  Is he board certified or fellowship trained in the particular specialty you are looking for? If you are interested in a particular procedure, how many have they done, or better yet, how often are they currently doing the procedure? If an older surgeon, who previously did “procedure X” five times a week, now only does it once a month, he may be rusty.  Can they get you in quickly, or will you have to wait a long time? A long wait may indicate you’ll have trouble getting back in to see the doctor if there is a problem.  As a young doctor, I know all too well that people want someone experienced (my hair can’t go gray fast enough). What younger doctors may lack in sheer numbers of procedures performed, they may make up in knowing the most up-to-date techniques and state-of-the-art treatments (this is where talking with others who’ve had the procedure performed by your prospective doctor is helpful).

Finally, make sure the physician can communicate well with you, both listening and explaining. Discuss with your doctor exactly what they plan to do in your treatment or surgery. They must clearly explain it to you in language you understand.  A recent article in the Chicago Tribune about doctor-patient communication listed the following things to look for when searching out a physician:

The Tribune stated that a good doctor:

1.  asks why you’ve come and what you would like to get from the appointment.

2.  shows respect to you and your family members.

3.  is respectful of your time (apologizes for being late and explains why he held you up).

4.  listens as much as he talks, give answers in understandable, non-jargon language, and helps you make informed decisions.

5. is scientifically up to date and willing to share his reasoning behind his advice.

6. is encouraging if you desire a second opinion.

7. makes you feel good about asking questions.

8. makes you a partner in your care, rather than just a recipient.

9. promptly returns phone calls or emails.

10. makes appointments easy to make, with minimal waiting times.

11. creates a warm environment where you can have an open and honest discussion.

On the flip side, you may have found a not-so-good doctor if he/she:

1. is dismissive of your questions and concerns.

2. leaves you feeling unsatisfied and unsure of your treatment and other issues.

3. doesn’t welcome second opinions (leave immediately).

4. is disrespectful of you, family members, office staff (a good indication that he is the reason he goes to work, not you).

5. makes you feel too uncomfortable to have an open, honest discussion.

6. has State Board disciplinary violations.

7. makes it difficult to book appointments (it can take weeks or months).

8. isn’t available to you during off hours (weekends/nights) and neither are his colleagues.

To make the doctor-patient relationship work, you as a patient can do a few things to make your appointments successful.  First, be prepared. Have a list of questions you want answered.  Also, keep a brief medical history with you containing a list of all your medications with dosages and schedules, any previous surgeries or major medical events, drug allergies or intolerances, and any pertinent family medical history. Printing out a copy of this to take with you and give to the doctor will give them a complete picture of your past and keep all your doctors on the same page. For an eye appointment, be sure and bring your current glasses and contact lens boxes.  This can make that annoying refraction a lot quicker and more accurate.

Next, when relating your problems to the doctor be succinct and tell a clear story.  We are human and can get lost just a easy as the next person when listening to a long disjointed narrative. Answer the questions asked, but don’t be afraid to give other information you may think is important.  And don’t worry about asking stupid questions.  I’ve had patients sheepishly ask me if some symptom is worth mentioning, only to determine it was the primary problem.

Finally, don’t be afraid to challenge your doctor on their opinion, but also be willing to take their advice and adhere to the treatment they’ve prescribed.  Nothing is more disheartening than to see someone suffer unnecessarily because they are unwilling to follow the advice they’ve sought out and received. You’ve gone to them because you believed they knew something you didn’t, so give their ideas a chance.

A little homework and effort on your part can lead to finding a doctor that will take great care of you and your family, and make you feel you’re are an integral part in the process.