Many of us spend more time and effort on locating a good hairdresser than on finding a good doctor. But who can blame us? Shopping for doctors can be intimidating for some people. They all hang diplomas -- written in Latin, which no one understands -- on every wall of their offices, so we presume they're extremely well-educated. And most are not exactly fond of being interviewed about their competency by people who know nothing about medicine. But finding the right doctor is something we all need to do when we are well -- not when we are on the way to the hospital.
To complicate matters even more, as women, we have special health issues that our doctors should be familiar with. Can your doctor, for instance, give female-specific advice about preventing heart disease? Can your doctor answer questions about hormone therapy? Does he or she know enough about alternative medicine to have an intelligent conversation with you about any alternative treatments you are using? Maybe you have both a regular and an alternate doctor. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the two of them could talk together about your care once in a while? Wouldn’t it be nice if your healthcare team were as good a match for you as your hairdresser?
Check Their Credentials
One of the best ways to find a competent doctor is to ask around, but don't just ask anyone. If you can, question people who work in the medical field. Emergency room physicians and nurses are often in a good position to judge the abilities of local doctors. If it's a gynecologist you're after, ask nurse practitioners.
Doctor-referral services can be somewhat helpful, but be aware of their limitations. Listed in the yellow pages, these services are usually run either by a local hospital, which lists only doctors employed there, or by a county medical society, which is a paid-membership organization.
At the least-sophisticated level, these services simply give callers the names of doctors from a rotating list of members. Advanced services, on the other hand, list basic information concerning board-certification and specialties of their doctors. And most of them weed out doctors who are trouble or who have been the subject of numerous complaints. However, these services do not give true comparisons or negative information about doctors. For that information, contact the American Board of Medical Specialties, 353 North Clark Street, Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60654.
Choosing the Alternate Route
If you're looking for a doctor practicing alternative medicine, consider a naturopathic doctor, or N.D. An N.D. is trained in all forms of alternative medicine, including nutrition and herbal remedies. Look for one who is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP). These doctors have all graduated from one of the four U.S. or Canadian colleges recognized by the Council on Naturopathic Medical Education.
To find an N.D. In your area, you can check the AANP's website. Or for a small fee, you can receive a national membership list and a brochure detailing naturopathic physicians and their services.
Currently, there are 20 states in addition to the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia that have registration or licensing laws for naturopathic doctors. Virginia and Florida license the practice of naturopathy under a grandfather clause. Selected states require that health insurance providers cover N.D. care, but the type of coverage varies. In states where N.D.’s are not licensed, anyone can claim to be a naturopathic doctor, so checking credentials and education is important.
Does your Doctor Have the Right Stuff?
Whether the doctor you’re considering is traditional or alternative, check their credentials and other more subjective aspects to of their practice. Call the doctor's office for this information. It is a good way to find out if the staff is consumer-friendly and willing to answer your questions. Here are some of the questions you should ask.
1. Is the doctor accepting new patients?
2. Is the doctor board-certified? Board certification means that the doctor has taken extra training and passed the examination given by a national board of professionals in that specialty field. Board certification is an important way by which doctors judge their colleagues’ credentials. Keep in mind that alternate physicians are not likely to be board-certified.
3. Does the doctor have consultations? How long are they? And how much do they cost?
4. At what hospitals does the doctor have privileges to admit, treat, or operate on their patients? Privileges are rights granted to a doctor by a hospital review board, depending on the hospital’s need for doctors and on a doctor's qualifications.
5. Does the doctor accept phone calls from patients? At what hours? Do they offer an email portal that you can use to communicate about medical concerns or issues? The doctor's staff can frequently answer questions over the phone, but you should have direct access to the doctor if you feel it’s necessary.
6. Does your doctor have any evening or weekend hours?
7. How far in advance is the doctor booked for routine appointments? How quickly can you get in for an emergency?
8. Does the doctor work in a group? How many doctors are in the group? Are they all board-certified? Who backs up the doctor when they’re on vacation?
9. Does your doctor work in conjunction with alternative practitioners or make referrals to them?
Reward good doctors with a positive recommendation. Help other soon-to-be patients find a good doctor by promoting the ones who deserve it.
Valerie lives in New York. As a health advocate, she shares tips and steps on maximizing nutrition, weight, and fitness goals to help others embrace a healthier lifestyle. She blogs at Halfmile Fitness.