How to find the right doctor

On the road to becoming highly healthy, I recommend each person have a personal physician to serve as their health care coach. Usually I recommend a primary care physician. But, how do you find the right doctor?

There are several important steps to take in hiring your PCP. Obviously, you need to find a good fit. You can ask others (especially pastors and nurses you know) for referrals and recommendations. You’ll want to determine if a particular provider’s personality and philosophy of care match your desires.

You’ll want to check the provider’s qualifications and track record, and many PCPs will allow you to schedule a short office visit to interview them—to see if you and the PCP will work well together on your journey to becoming highly healthy. Some people even want to take a spiritual inventory of their potential PCP. I’ve outlined these steps in more detail here:

Find a Good Fit

Choosing the best physician for yourself or for a loved one requires some information gathering. While many insurance companies limit your choices to physicians they have approved, you should still decide the following:

  • Do you want a physician who is disease oriented or wellness oriented?
  • Do you prefer conservative or aggressive approaches to care?
  • Would you rather have a physician who is informal and warm, or formal and detached?
  • What specific competencies do you want in your physician? Pediatric care? Maternity care? Hospital care? Care for the entire family? Elder care? Care for a specific disease or condition?
  • Do you prefer a physician who invites your participation in your care or one who tells you what to do?
  • Do you desire a male or a female physician?
  • Do you want a physician who is interested in or at least supportive of your spiritual interests?

Get Referrals and Recommendations

Once you’ve determined your personal preferences, begin to ask friends, neighbors, colleagues, relatives, or clergy for names of doctors they’d recommend. Check especially with trustworthy people who are connected in some way to the health care system. Always consider the opinion of other reliable providers who have cared for you in the past.

If you have specialized needs for a specific physical or mental problem, local and state advocate or support groups can be an excellent source of information about providers who are skilled in these areas.

To further narrow your search, consider checking to see if public information about the prospective provider is available. Sources of such information include the appropriate state professional organization, the Better Business Bureau, and your state’s department of professional regulation and insurance.

Some states also have Internet databases that allow you to gather information about malpractice cases and complaints. The state should be able to tell you if the physician is currently licensed and if the state has ever taken disciplinary action against him or her. In most states you may request a copy of the disciplinary order.

To find out if any malpractice lawsuits have been filed against a physician, in most states you can check with the county where the physician practices and resides. This list is usually maintained in the county clerk’s office.

Keep in mind, however, that anyone can file a lawsuit at any time and for just about any reason. The existence of a malpractice complaint or lawsuit doesn’t automatically suggest that a physician is a bad doctor. It may only mean that one particular patient was unhappy about something.

What’s more, the outcome may have been out of the physician’s control. However, several legal actions, or a pattern of similar actions, may be cause for concern.

There are several Internet databases that will inform you of a potential physician’s record—including the American Medical Association’s “AMA Doctor Finder” Website, which you can access here: https://extapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder/recaptcha.jsp

The AMA says this site provides information on virtually every licensed physician in the United States and its possessions.

For those seeking a Christian physician (many of whom are not AMA members), the Christian Medical Association can help via their doctor search Web site: http://www.cmda.org/drsearch/

Once you’ve determined the doctors who make it to the top of your list, call their offices. Ask the receptionist if a staff member can take a few moments to answer these questions for you:

  • Are you accepting new patients?
  • Do you accept my insurance plan? Or, if you are paying cash, what is their cash pay discount?
  • How long has the doctor practiced in this area?
  • How many patients are seen by this practice?
  • Does the doctor practice alone or in a group? If in a group, how many members are there and how many offices do they practice in?
  • Who provides my care when the doctor is not available?
  • At which hospitals does the doctor admit patients, and are there any limitations on the doctor’s hospital privileges?
  • If the doctor does not admit patients, who will care for me if I have to go to the emergency room or have to be admitted to the hospital?
  • Is the doctor certified by a medical specialty board? Which board? In what specialty area?
  • If I call with a question or problem, will the doctor speak to me personally?
  • When is the best time to call?
  • How often does the doctor recommend routine physicals? Will they be covered by my health plan? What does the doctor routinely check for, and what tests are generally done?
  • Can a friend or family member sit in on my exams and procedures?
  • How willing is the doctor to have me take an active role in my treatment?
  • How would he or she react if I asked about a medication or test that he or she wasn’t familiar with or if I brought in my own informal research for review with the doctor?
  • How does the doctor feel about alternative medicine?

Schedule an Interview

Once you choose a particular health care provider, request a brief appointment to interview him or her. More and more providers welcome these interviews, and they allow you to ask specific questions related to the expectations you have for the coordination and management of your personal health care.

Increasingly, providers offer this type of appointment at no cost to you. After you leave the interview, at which you can ask the questions listed above, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Was I treated courteously and respectfully?
  • Was the office orderly, comfortable, and clean?
  • Was the staff friendly and helpful?
  • Did I have to wait a long time past my appointment time to see the doctor?
  • Were all of my questions answered?
  • Did I feel rushed or disrespected or disregarded?
  • If you were not satisfied, go to the next name on your list!

You may want to check out a couple of resources that give you additional information on picking a doctor. Examining Your Doctor by Timothy McCall, M.D., puts the white coat on you, and the horrid paper gown—which is open down the back—on your physician and hospital.

Practice an Attitude of Gratitude with Your Physician

If you already have a winning health care team and don’t need to find new players, why not consider jotting a brief thank-you note to your health care provider, physician, or other member of your team. So many of them hear only complaints. Rare is the appreciative patient who will write and just say, “You are doing a great job, and I appreciate you so much.”

If you feel this way, write or e-mail a note to your doctor or provider today.

Take a Spiritual Inventory

Last, but not least, finding a doctor and other health care team members who share your spiritual foundation and practices may be crucial for you—and thankfully it’s fairly simple. You can use a spiritual inventory.

Doctors are increasingly using spiritual inventories in their care of patients. In fact, when I make presentations at medical centers, medical schools, and professional meetings, the question I most often hear is, “How can doctors take useful spiritual inventories of their patients?”

In the same way a doctor can inquire about a patient’s spiritual beliefs, a patient should feel free to ask about how a doctor’s spiritual beliefs and practices relate to his or her medical care. A winning health care professional should be perfectly willing to let you know where he or she stands on these issues.

Furthermore, when it comes to alternative or complementary care providers, these questions can be critical, because some have been known to use their therapy to actively recruit unsuspecting patients into spiritual belief systems I think are highly unhealthy.

Here are a few questions you could ask at your interview of the prospective health care professional—or during your first official appointment. I’m sure you could come up with some of your own to add. I’m aware that most people probably won’t follow my suggestion to ask a provider all the following questions—especially at a first meeting. However, if your spirituality is very important to you, and if you want a provider who shares your beliefs, then each question might by useful for you to discuss with your physician at some point.

1) Are you willing to consider my spiritual preferences as you care for me?

2) Are you open to discussion of the religious or spiritual implications of my health care?

3) Are you willing to work with my spiritual mentors (pastor, priest, rabbi, elder) and other members of my health care team (family, friends, mentor, support group) in providing me with the best possible health care?

4) Are you willing to pray with me—or for me—if I feel the need for prayer?

For those who are working to inflate and balance their spiritual wheel, asking questions 1, 2, 3, and 4 is perfectly reasonable—and, I would expect, acceptable to most physicians and providers. Some might consider the following questions 5 through 9 to be too personal and intimate to ask of a total stranger. So if you’re not there—no problem.

5) What does spirituality mean to you? How much is religion (and God) a source of strength and comfort for you?

6) Have you ever had an experience that convinced you that God or a higher power exists?

7) How strongly religious or spiritually oriented do you consider yourself to be?

8) Do you pray? If so, how frequently?

9) Do you attend religious worship times? If so, how often do you generally attend?

Even if you decide that asking these questions in an interview style is not comfortable, you may want to look for opportunities to talk informally during a visit. But at least consider asking the first four questions. Frankly discussing this can strengthen all four of your health wheels (physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual), as well as your trust relationship with your health care professional.

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