How do you find a good doctor? Here are some tips.

Over the past year I have had more than my fair share of visits with doctors as a patient and a caregiver.  After hearing horror stories from friends (and experiencing some of my own) I have developed a pretty foolproof system for finding good doctors and healthcare facilities.  Here are some common sense tips for anyone starting their search for a good doctor.

Spend 20 minutes looking at patient reviews and rankings in your area.  Whether you are looking for an internal medicine/family doctor or a specialist, reviews and rankings are the first place to start.  Vitals and Healthgrades allow you to search by specialty post specific patient reviews, while US News & World Reports posts national rankings on top specialists in the country.  

Rule out the crazy reviews.  Vitals in particular allows patients to post whatever they want about doctors….some people just have unreasonable expectations, and some people are downright crazy.  It’s possible that a doctor is really the best in one specific area of his or her specialty.  I have found that it’s common to see 1-2 low reviews for a great doctor, so don’t rule them out just because you see a couple of low reviews.  Also, sometimes you can see patterns emerge in poor reviews from patients.  Think about what you want (versus what you need) in a doctor.  Are you looking for a great diagnostician or a great surgeon?  A generalist or a specialist?  If you need surgery, perhaps low reviews for bedside manner may not matter as much finding someone who gets really great results for his patients.  Decide what’s most important to you.  For a a general family doctor, you will likely be just fine picking one and making an appointment.  Read no further!

Make a list of 4-5 ‘potential’ candidates that take your insurance.  For major conditions or surgeries where you need a specialist, you MUST do your research.  Don’t blindly trust referrals from your primary care doctor without doing a little homework.  Trust me.  Spending some time upfront before you choose a doctor can save you a great deal of headache and heartache in the end.  Chances are, if you are calling to make an appointment with a really great doctor, they may be booked months in advance.  Depending on your time frame, you are likely to get at least 1-2 good doctors on your list with an opening in their schedule.

For major surgery, get a second or third opinion, and factor in hospital rankings before choosing a surgeon.  Some great doctors may recommend very different approaches to the treating same issue.  This is why it’s important to get more than one opinion before choosing your doctor.  For example, let’s say you have spinal stenosis, and a doctor recommends that you need back surgery.  I visited several surgeons with my father for his back problems and their recommended approaches ranged from experimental 18 hour surgery fusing his entire spine to a minimally invasive laminectomy.  Depending on your health issue, you will need to educate yourself and become your own advocate.  Also, certain conditions or complications from surgery can require collaboration between doctors.  This is where finding a great hospital for your specialty becomes important.

Write down your questions before your visit.  Take notes and compare answers.  You can often find a list of questions to ask depending on your procedure or condition online.  Here is an example.  Here’s another example!  Asking the same questions to each doctor you visit can help you make an objective comparison.  Doctors may give different answers to the same questions, and give you a sense of how experienced they are with your particular issue.

Of course, this advice assumes that you have the time, resources (i.e. health insurance), and wherewithal to navigate the sometimes overwhelming and bureaucratic healthcare system.  And this becomes even harder when you are dealing with the diagnosis of a major health issue.  This past year I learned to accept the harsh reality that the healthcare system is governed by the law of survival of the most assertive and savvy.  People who ask the right questions and do their research get the best care.  It’s sad but it’s true – not all doctors and hospitals are created equal.  So do your homework before you put your health in the hands of a doctor.