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How to shop for a doctor

When it comes to finding a doctor, many Americans take the easy way out. That could be a dangerous mistake.

They pick a doctor by flipping open a phone book or a health care directory and choosing a doctor with an office near their homes or workplaces. Others might ask a friend or two for advice. And that's about it.

That's hardly a comprehensive search. Pinpointing a doctor to care for your family's medical needs is too important a decision to make so lightly.

To find a physician who is right for you, you'll need to do some research and some old-fashioned shopping around.

"Spend some time," says John Connolly, co-publisher of America's Top Doctors.

"These are really critical, important choices that can mean your life."

Begin your search
Start by asking friends, family and co-workers about doctors they'd recommend and why. Get as many recommendations as you can. And don't be shy about asking more specific questions.

"Did the doctor really take a thorough medical history? Is the doctor familiar with your case?" asks Robert Krughoff, editor of Consumers' Guide to Top Doctors. "When you go, does he or she listen to you and make you feel at ease when asking questions?"

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A family physician that you've known for years, even someone who lives in a different part of the country, may be able to recommend a doctor or a well-known hospital or medical group in your area. It's worth a shot.

Look for doctors associated with the top hospital in your area. For tips on selecting a good hospital, check out "Your Guide to Choosing Quality Health Care," an online booklet from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Seek out doctors who are board certified. Board certification means a doctor has completed at least three years of training in a specific field after medical school and has passed a tough exam.

"Now it doesn't guarantee they're a great doctor," Connolly says. "But at least it assures you they've had the appropriate training for that specialty."

You can check a doctor's credentials online by visiting the Web sites of the American Medical Association or the American Board of Medical Specialties.

These sites also list online directories that will help you locate doctors by specialty in your area. Some hospital Web sites also offer physician-locator services. Be sure to check.

Look for a doctor with teaching responsibilities at a hospital. Teaching doctors aren't limited to medical schools. Many doctors spend a couple of hours a week teaching and guiding newly trained doctors.

"It keeps you up-to-date. It keeps you intellectually alive," Krughoff says. "You want a doctor that's being exposed to questions and new ideas all the time."

Tracking down physicians with teaching duties may be as simple as calling a hospital and asking.

Avoid doctors with a record of disciplinary actions. Links to state medical complaint boards can be found on the Web sites of Consumers CheckBook and America's Top Doctors.

Visiting Questionable Doctors, a Web site launched by Public Citizen, is another good step. The site's Internet database contains names of doctors in 26 states and the District of Columbia who have been disciplined by state medical boards and federal agencies in the past 10 years. Listed doctors have been disciplined for everything from negligence and incompetence to sexual misconduct and incorrectly prescribing drugs.

Ask the right questions
Once you narrow down your choices to a couple of doctors near you, call the doctors' offices and ask a few more questions. Be sure to speak to the office manager.

  • Is the doctor taking new patients?

  • Is the doctor covered by your health plan? If the doctor is not covered by your health plan, can you afford to pay the extra costs?

  • How much experience does a doctor have in treating your specific medical condition? For example, if you have diabetes, you'd want to find out how much of their practice focuses on diabetes care.

  • What are the doctor's office hours? Are the hours convenient to your schedule? Does the doctor offer extended or weekend hours? Some do.

  • How can you reach the doctor during an emergency? What other doctors will fill in if your primary doctor is unavailable?

Once you select a doctor, make sure you enjoy his or her company.

"It's got to be someone you feel you can relate to. You have to make sure that personal dynamic is there," Connolly says. "If that personal chemistry is just not good then it's not going to be good for your health."

If a doctor puts you off, you're more likely to hold back questions and concerns. You'll avoid making appointments. You'd be much better off finding another doctor.

"If you go to a doctor and you just don't like them, start over again," Connolly says.

Even if you and your doctor get to be great pals, don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion if a serious health problem arises. Getting a second opinion is also a good idea if your doctor is having a difficult time diagnosing your health problem.

"No good doctor should be insulted if you want a second opinion," Connolly says. "Physicians all look at problems differently. Maybe the physician you're dealing with is missing something that someone else picks up."

-- Updated: May 19, 2004
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Financial advice glossary
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