3 Tips for Choosing the Right Doctor

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Here’s an unhealthy fact: Americans trust nurses and pharmacists more than they trust the doctors who hire those nurses and write their prescriptions.

Earlier this month, Gallup released its annual Honesty and Ethics survey – and for the 11th straight year, nurses ranked first. Here’s the top 5, along with the percentage of Americans who rate their ethics and honesty as “high” or “very high”…

  1. Nurses (81 percent)
  2. Military officers (73 percent)
  3. Pharmacists (71 percent)
  4. Grade school teachers (67 percent)
  5. Medical doctors (66 percent)

This isn’t so strange if you think about it. Given the complexities of health care these days, it’s easier to buy a car than find a good primary care physician: You can shop for the car online and choose everything from the paint job to the seat covers (for instance, go to Toyota.com and click “Build Your Toyota”). Or, as we suggested earlier this month and a reader actually did, you can email car dealers and get just the vehicle you want.

If only finding a primary care physician were so easy.

It’s estimated that one in 10 adults – 25 million people – are looking for a new primary care physician each year. If you have health insurance, many plans provide you with a list of approved primary care physicians. Some let you choose whoever you wish. Either way, how can you find a doctor you can trust and feel comfortable with? While you can’t search the Internet as easily as you can for a new car, there are some valuable online resources…

1. Check their license

Most states allow you to easily search online for your doctor’s license information. For instance, if you live in California, you can click on Physician License Lookup and find out if your doctor has been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor or been disciplined or formally accused of misconduct. Search your state government’s website for something similar.

2. Get on board

Want to know if your doctor is a member of the American Medical Association? The AMA’s DoctorFinder can tell you. It’s also useful for simply finding a doctor in your area. You can even search by specialty. If your doctor tells you he’s “board certified” and you want to check, the American Board of Medical Specialties has a handy search tool called, quite simply, Is Your Doctor Certified?

3. Read all about it

If you’re looking for some general advice from reliable sources, here are three excellent sources…

WebMD’s How to Choose a Doctor lists some obvious questions you need to ask yourself (“Is the office staff friendly and courteous?”) to some not-so-obvious questions you need to ask the doctor (“Do you frequently refer patients to specialists or do you prefer to manage the majority of your care yourself?”). But as another example of how medical information is often difficult to find, this excellent article is located, for some reason, under WebMD’s “Menopause Health Center.”

The federal government’s National Institute on Aging has compiled similar information under Choosing a Doctor, but it’s written for older Americans and provides some specific details for them – including links to other elder-care websites.

Consumer Reports has an entire section of its website dedicated to How to Choose a Doctor, which takes you through a half-dozen sections that include specific information on specialists and the differences in treating men and women.

One man’s story

Over the years, I’ve relied on the Internet to choose doctors, including my primary care physician. Like many people, I also tend to find doctors by word of mouth from friends and family – one study says half of us find our doctors this way, while only 35 percent of us rely on our health plans. Only one in nine use the Internet.

But I try to collect every scrap of information possible before I trust my health to someone I might only see a few times a year and don’t really know. My last primary care physician was wonderful – so wonderful he left private practice to work in hospice care.

Here’s how I found him…

  1. I asked, of all people, my dentist. Hey, she’s a doctor, and she’s great. (My previous dentist botched a root canal, and this one fixed it – nothing instills loyalty like a repaired root canal.) So when I asked for a recommendation, my dentist suggested an internist in the plaza across the street.
  2. I searched online for his name, including a website called Health Grades. There I found three comments for him, all positive. And he had no medical malpractice suits against him, according to the site. Still, I looked him up on my state’s official licensing site and confirmed he was in good standing.
  3. Because I want a doctor who embraces the latest technology, I do something that may be unconventional: I search to see if the doctor has a Twitter account and is on Facebook or LinkedIn. Maybe this is flawed reasoning, but I figure if a doctor can’t at least post his professional profile on a business site like LinkedIn, how can I be sure he’s staying up to date with the latest medical technology? My guy had both a Twitter account and a LinkedIn profile.

I ended up going to this doctor for a couple years, and he even used email as a way to directly communicate – still rare. According to a recent survey of doctors, less than 7 percent do that.

Now I’m again on the hunt for a primary care physician, and I plan to use all the advice contained in this article. I’ll tell you how it goes.

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