The Right Way to Pick a Doctor

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There's more to picking a doctor than reading online reviews. These tips from a former medical professional will help you find a well qualified doctor who meets your needs.

I grew up in medicine. My father is a cardiologist, my mother is a medical office manager, and I spent most of my 20s as a medical office administrator.

I’ve also spent my share of time in waiting rooms as a patient. Because of my background on both sides of the counter, there’s nothing more important to me than my health. So I scrutinize my doctors as much as I scrutinize my suitors. My life is in their hands.

These step-by-step tips are what I’ve learned – as both a medical insider and a patient – about picking a doctor…

Check with your insurance company

Unless you’re OK with paying out of pocket, you’ll need a doctor who accepts your insurance plan. The best way to find out: Check your insurance company’s website or call the number on the back of your insurance card. That’s what a doctor’s office staff usually does before you arrive for your first appointment anyway, so you save yourself time if you make that call before booking an appointment.

Consider location

This includes the location of hospitals where a doctor may be on staff. If you end up in an ambulance because of a life-threatening emergency, the EMTs will likely drive you to the nearest hospital. So if your doctor isn’t on staff at your nearest hospital, he couldn’t take care of you in the hospital following such an emergency.

Even if you get your own ride to the ER for a non-life-threatening emergency, if it requires hospitalization, you couldn’t request a specific doctor’s hospital care unless you went to a hospital where he has staff privileges. To find out what hospitals a doctor has privileges at, just call his office and ask.

Verify their credentials

There are three basics to look for.

  • License: The law requires doctors to be licensed – which signifies they’ve met basic education and training requirements – by the state they practice in. To confirm whether a license is active and in good standing, contact your state medical board or check its website. (The nonprofit Federation of State Medical Boards has compiled a national directory that includes every board’s contact information and website.) Some state boards offer free online verification, like the database of licensed doctors in Florida.
  • Board certification: Many doctors also obtain board certification in a medical specialty. It’s voluntary and and requires them to complete specific training and undergo additional testing. The easiest way to find out whether a doctor is board certified, or boarded, is to ask him or his staff – and then go online to verify. For example, say you call an internist who claims to be boarded in internal medicine. You can then visit the American Board of Internal Medicine‘s website, which has a “Verify a Physician’s ABIM Certification” box. Each area of expertise has its own board, so just do a Web search for: American Board of [insert specialty].
  • Malpractice lawsuits: How to obtain this information varies from state to state. Sometimes it’s online (Florida’s Department of Health has a “Practitioner Profiling” website that includes a doctor’s lawsuits), but often you must make a phone call or put your request in writing. Start with the clerk of court for the county where the doctor practices: Try a Web search for “county clerk” + [county name]. Other agencies that may maintain lawsuit records in your state include the department of health and state medical board. Just remember that a malpractice lawsuit necessarily isn’t a red flag: You need to find out whether a lawsuit was dismissed or settled and how big the settlement was. Lastly, don’t trust third-party websites. It may seem easier to go through one, but you often don’t know where they got their info from or whether it’s complete and current.

Take online reviews with a grain of salt

Review websites like HealthGrades have become popular over the past several years, but they have downsides.

  • They can be unreliable: Reviewing a human being is more complicated than reviewing a product. Our personalities and values can affect our judgment. For example, if a patient sees a top-notch doctor but their personalities clash, the patient may write a poor review even if that doctor’s education, training, and certifications are excellent.
  • They can be irrelevant: Since HealthGrades ratings focus on the patient’s experience, you can waste time reading about the office’s wallpaper and the staff’s smiles instead of important factors like the doctor’s qualifications.

The same goes for online advice

Even professional sites sometimes give silly medical advice. In WebMD’s article How to Choose a Doctor, they ask, “Is there ample parking?” Who cares? If a doctor is qualified or otherwise fits your needs, are you really going to someone else because you’d have to park a few hundred yards away? We’re talking about a medical care provider, not a restaurant.

Decide what matters most

These tips add up to a lot of factors to consider: qualifications, cost, location, customer service, etc. – but you can’t have it all. As humans, doctors aren’t perfect. So as a patient, you must determine which factors matter most to you before you can determine which doctor best fits your needs.

Do your part

Once you’ve picked a doctor, keep in mind that his effectiveness depends on your participation. To get the most out of doctor appointments, be a proactive patient by doing what you can to help your doctor before you arrive for each appointment. To learn how to do your medical homework, check out 6 Tips to Save Time and Money at the Doctors Office.

Karla Bowsher runs our Deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

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