Finding the Right Physician

Finding the right physician is no easy task, even for me and I'm a doctor. Over the last several months, I received care from 2 new doctors, a primary care physician (PCP) and a specialist. My experiences were horrible. I waited over an hour for my appointment with the PCP who never once acknowledged my prolonged wait time.  She then spent the bulk of my appointment staring intently at her computer screen while I shared my medical history.  My visit with the specialist was equally appalling.  Though I did not have to wait long, she spent barely 10 minutes with me.  In this short amount of time, she managed to dismiss all my questions and concerns as either silly or unimportant.  She barely smiled and stood with her arms folded tightly across her chest for the entire appointment. 

Sometimes I forget what it's like to share your fears and concerns with a total stranger. I forget the awkwardness and vulnerability inherent in disrobing during your appointment only to have an outsider inspect your nakedness like you are just a collection of body parts with a problem to be solved.  These 2 doctor appointments reminded me of the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship and how awful it feels when things go awry - a jarring wake up call for me to examine how my patients experience their encounter with me. The connection between a patient and his/her physician is unique and one that I profoundly respect and cherish.

Physicians, like everyone else, certainly can have a bad day or two.  We get stuck in traffic, our cars break down, our children get sick, and we make mistakes; but, it is our professional obligation to treat all patients with respect and kindness.

So how do you find the right physician for yourself or your family? Well here are 5 tips that I suggest for choosing the right doctor. And if you are wondering, no, I did not follow my own advice when selecting either of these 2 physicians.  At the time, I was in a time crunch and needed quick availability.  I got seen quickly but sacrificed the quality of the relationship.

1) Ask for referrals BUT consider the practicalities - insurance coverage, practice location, wait time for new patient appointments

If your friend, neighbor, co-worker, or another physician suggests a particular doctor, explore this option. Good physicians are popular for a reason - because they are good! Just keep in mind that who you can see is dictated by your insurance coverage unless you are willing and able to pay for an out-of-network provider. Sometimes the next available appointment for new patient time slot is 3 or more months away, especially for specialists and very popular primary care physicians.

2) Do you feel valued? Does he listen to your concerns? Does she understand your needs?

Trust is essential to any healthy relationship, and the doctor-patient relationship is no exception.  By nature, conversations about your health and well-being are personal and private. You may share information about your physical and mental health that only your physician knows. As such, you expect your physician to listen to your concerns fully and without judgement and to address them with sensitivity and tact. She should lend her ear and her expertise.

3) Can she explain medical jargon in layman's terms?

Doctors often use medical jargon to explain what they believe is causing your symptoms, but such language can be quite confusing. She should be able to tell you what she thinks is going on, how she is going to determine the right cause, and outline a plan of action once the problem is identified all using words you can understand. He should be able to point you to online resources or offer handouts and answer your questions to enhance your comprehension.

4) Is he willing to answer your questions and talk to your family? Will she discuss various treatment options with you?

Physicians have spent years in training. First comes medical school, then residency, followed by fellowship training for those who further sub-specialize in their specific field of medicine.  We have amassed a tremendous knowledge base, but you know nothing of that other than perhaps our academic pedigree when you see a doctor for the first time. And, frankly, you don't care. What we are all looking for is a doctor who shows compassion; is willing to take the time to answer our questions, big and small, and does not make you feel rushed; will include your family if desired; and, consider the things you value when discussing treatment options. If you wish to discuss non-pharmacologic treatments for certain ailments, he should be open to reviewing the pros and cons of such an approach so you can make the right decision for you and what you value.

5) Are you treated with respect - respect for your time, respect for your thoughts and opinions?

The specialist I saw made it very clear that she wanted to hear nothing of my previously tried strategies to address my problem and only pushed her own agenda. When I asked her about a controversial product she had recommended, she scoffed and quickly stated that research is done in mice so I had nothing to worry about since I'm a big human. I mean, I am a physician, too, so I totally get that; but, that was not the point. I was concerned and she made me feel stupid for even asking the question. Then  I just became angry and vowed never to return to that practice.  She showed little respect for my valid reservations about the product. On the other hand, the PCP clearly did not respect my time. As I stated earlier, I waited over an hour just to see her and then still had to be seen. I had not planned to need the entire morning for just one appointment and needed to return to work to see my own patients; but, it seems this doctor never once considered what else I may have had going on that day. There was never an apology - nothing. Your physician should always show respect for your feelings even if those feelings do not line up with their belief system or the current medical research.  Now time is a different matter as many physicians often run behind. That being said, good customer service should be a part of the package, and a simple apology for a long wait is always appreciated.