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Finding a Great Doctor

By Julie Fishman
Quick Tips

  1. Finding doctors – Call your insurance provider and ask for the list of participating doctors in your area (most providers will also have this info listed online). You can also find doctors by visiting The American Medical Association or WebMD. Local publications like New York Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine provide annual rankings. Asking friends and colleagues for recommendations is also helpful.
  2. Research – Once you find a docs, do some due diligence: Where did they graduate from? What specialties does they focus on? Are affiliated with any hospitals/schools. Also, be sure to check if they’ve had any disciplinary action by checking your state board of medicine.
  3. Quality of service – Don’t accept anything more than a one to four week wait for an appointment. In addition, any doctor your see shouldn’t treat more than 3-5 patients per hour. Finally, find out how after-hours calls are handled.
  4. Insurance – Unless you have cash to burn, double check that the doctor takes your insurance, especially if you moved to a new state. All listing services should include the insurance plans each doctor takes.
  5. Get comfortable – If after visiting a doctor for the first time you just don’t think they’re the one, move onto another. There’s no contract to stay.

When you move to a new city and no longer get to visit the same doctor who knew you since your "hairless" days, it can feel pretty daunting to find a new physician...let alone a dermatologist for your newly developed eczema and a physical therapist for your ultimate frisbee injury.

Even if you're lucky enough to get coverage through your employer, finding a doctor can still be tricky—more often than not, someone from HR will sit you down on your first day, hand you a book of 10,000 doctors, and ask you to pick one. Choosing the one that's alphabetically closest to your own name is one approach, but thankfully it doesn't have to be that random. Here are a few simple ways to make an educated choice. Whatever you do, don't delay getting treatment just because you're too lazy to find a doctor, because a minor annoyance can quickly become a major complication.

Skimming the Surface

If you have an insurance provider, the first step should be to visit their website or call to conduct a search for managed care "in-network" doctors who specialize in what you need. More than likely, you'll end up with a laundry list of participating docs that you should narrow down first by location and eventually by skill. Though you can also choose out-of-network doctors, the insurance company will cover a lower percentage of the overall visit. However, when looking for the best care, don’t discount independent doctors; the insurance company may cover enough of the cost for you to wing it, or you may simply have enough on your own to foot the bill without them. Independent doctors aren’t influenced by incentives from drug companies or insurance carriers.

Besides insurance companies, you can also use The American Medical Association and WebMD doctor finder, both searchable by name, specialty, and location. Local publications like New York Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine offer listings of top doctors in the area. Next time you hit the newsstand for your US Weekly gossip fill, you should check for regional magazines, then visit their online archives to see if they rate the docs in your ‘hood. If you have a specific condition, you may find that local, regional, and even national chapters of disease organizations (e.g., The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America) can be a valuable resource when searching for doctors, researching treatment, or looking for advice from those with the same condition.

Finally, the most old-school way to find a good doctor is often the best—just ask around. Friends, co-workers, and neighbors offer something a computer or magazine can’t – no, not kidney donation – personal experience. Avoid the Yellow Pages: there is an inverse relationship between a doctor’s ad size and their skill. Be sure to consider location – the farther away you have to go, the less likely you’re going to make it.

Digging Deeper

Before picking Dr. Balzac because his name is funny or Dr. Grey in the hopes that Ellen Pompeo segued from Grey’s Anatomy to real anatomy, it’s important to check out the physician’s background. A Google search (include name, location, and specialty) is a good starting point, as you'll probably find out a bit about their affiliations with schools, hospitals, and societies. Doctor search engines provided through your insurance company, WebMD, or the AMA offer elementary information. To step your search up to Sherlocke Holmes status, visit Castle Connolly, a site with educational, training, and expertise details. Steer clear of services that charge a fee, like Physician Reports or Health Grades, each of which claim to offer a wealth of information for a chunk of our wealth (about $25) but in most cases don’t provide more than an address and alma mater. Whichever method you choose, you need to look for the following things:

  • Education – If the doc holds a degree from The University of Phoenix Online, don’t line up to see him. Check out this list of the top med schools in the country, but don’t get overly snooty about schooling.
  • Specialty and Subspecialty – Just knowing the guy is an orthopedic surgeon is about as helpful as knowing the lyrics to “Amish Paradise.” Find out what he specializes in between the head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
  • Membership and Appointments – Take a look at what organizations doctors belong to or what board positions they hold. The more they’re involved in the medical community associated with their area of expertise, the more likely they’ll be up-to-date with treatments and procedures.
  • Hospital/Med School Affiliations – Top doctors work at top hospitals; top hospitals offer top resources; top resources mean you get top care. Here’s a list of the best hospitals in the country. Even if it’s not on the list, a hospital affiliated with a university often has higher quality control than others, so scan this list of top med schools.
  • Disciplinary Action – A lawsuit or two may simply mean the physician is willing to attempt more risky procedures. Ten or twenty and you’d be better off letting a drunk friend with a butter knife remove your spleen. Make sure the doctor hasn’t been charged with serious transgressions (e.g., sexual misconduct or narcotic offenses) by searching on Castle Connolly. Then, see if he’s been fined or had his license suspended or revoked by contacting the appropriate state board of medicine.

Going for the Gold

Once you’ve found someone that’s convenient and competent, it’s time to pick up the phone and hit the secretary with questions Crossfire style.

  • Double-check that they do indeed accept your insurance.
  • Ask if they are taking new patients and find out what the wait time for an appointment is. Though the best doctors are often busier than the police at Mardi Gras, waiting too long can be hazardous to your health. One to four weeks before being seen is normal; one to four years is not.
  • Pay attention to office hours. If the physician only sees patients two days a week for two hours each day, you may not want to risk it.
  • Ask how many patients are typically scheduled each hour—shoot for 3-5. Leaving the office for an hour is acceptable, but if you’re gone for half a day your boss might not be so understanding.
  • Inquire about how after-hours calls are handled and the doc’s availability in case of an emergency; check if any back-up physicians will be accessible if your boy hits the Bahamas.
  • Even if the main office is conveniently located, ask where they do their blood work, X-rays, or other tests so that you don’t have to go to the end of the world for an endoscopy.

Finally, before you make your visit, do a little research into the problem you have (or think you have). Sure, self-diagnosis led many of us to be 99% we had AIDs at some point in college, but it's still better to be an active participant than an ignorant bystander when it comes time to get treatment.

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