A 10-step process to finding a good doctor

Most people, including physicians, rely on personal references to find a good doctor. But what do you do when you’re far from home, or you don’t know anyone with firsthand knowledge of local doctors? My parents recently asked me to recommend a physician for them in a state where I knew none of my colleagues personally. This is the 10-step process that I used to help them navigate their way to an excellent specialist — I hope it helps others you find the right doctor as well!

1. Determine what kind of doctor you need. You’d be surprised how many different specialists treat the same symptom — depending on its underlying cause. Take “back pain” for example — should you see a primary care physician, an orthopedist, a neurosurgeon, an anesthesiologist, a rheumatologist, or a rehab specialist to evaluate your symptoms? That depends on the cause of the pain, which might not yet be evident to you. The first step to finding a good physician is to figure out which type is best suited to your potential diagnosis. Bouncing from specialist to specialist can be costly, so if you’re not sure which kind of physician specializes in treating your disease or condition (or if you haven’t been diagnosed yet), start with a primary care physician first.

If you’d like to ask an online physician about your symptoms (or find out which specialist would be the most appropriate for you or your loved one),  eDocAmerica.com is my favorite online physician consultant service (note that I answer questions for them.)

2. Compile a list of all the doctors (of the specialty you need) in your area. This list can be generated by your insurance carrier or by an online search of doctor-finder databases such as Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, or US News & World Report’s Doctor Finder directory.

3. Narrow online choices by your preferences (available via  Healthgrades.com or Vitals.com databases). Check out the doctors’:

  • Hospital affiliation(s)
  • Office location(s)
  • Educational background
  • Specialty interests
  • Languages spoken
  • Years in practice
  • Gender
  • Types of insurance accepted
  • Review CV if available (often on affiliated hospital website).
  • Check out patient reviews (take them with a grain of salt in case they are skewed by an unfairly disgruntled patient).
  • Make sure they’re accepting new patients.

4. Do an online “background check” of your top choices.

5. Make an appointment. Consider the following qualities in a good physician experience:

  • The team: courteousness of scheduling staff, professionalism of nurses, PA’s, techs, etc.
  • Facilities: cleanliness, comfort
  • Medical records/communication: How will they provide you your data? EMR? Email?
  • Timeliness/convenience

6. Come prepared.

  • Bring your list of medications.
  • Bring a list of your medical and surgical history/conditions.
  • Bring a list of your allergies.
  • Bring contact information for your other physicians/providers.
  • Bring your insurance information.

7. Ask the right questions.

  • How many procedures (like the one I’ll need) have you performed previously?
  • What are the risks/benefits of the procedure? Alternatives?
  • What should I read to learn more about this?
  • If unsure of diagnosis: What else could this be?
  • Are there other medicines that are less expensive that we could substitute?

8. Go with your gut.

  • Did the doctor explain everything clearly?
  • Did the doctor seem to care about you?
  • Do you trust your doctor to be thorough with follow up?
  • Do you like your doctor?

9. Get a second opinion.

  • If the doctor did not meet your expectations in any significant way, find another one.
  • If you want to be sure that you’re on the best path, get a second opinion from one of his/her peers or do it online: eDocAmerica (for generalist questions), Best Doctors (to be matched with top national specialists)

10. Reward good doctors with good online recommendations so others can benefit. Physician ratings are only as reliable as the reviewers. Help other patients locate good doctors by promoting those who deserve it.

Val Jones is founder and CEO, Better Health.

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  • NPPCP

    Also consider the professionalism of the physician. And consider if they have an NP partner as well. “Nurses” are the most respected profession. No need to worry about them.

    • Kristy Sokoloski

      I definitely agree with the considering the professionalism of the physician. I would also add to that “do you feel like the doctor listened to you” to the list of things to consider after the visit when you are thinking about how well the visit went. I add this because I just ran in to this when my PCP sent me to another doctor of a certain specialty to get an opinion about one of my health issues. The doctor was very nice, but he wanted to discuss a different issue (one that I had consulted another doctor within this specialty about 2 years ago) before going on to telling me how he would handle the particular problem before that I was there to get his opinion about.

  • John C. Key MD

    Seems a bit labor-intensive, I doubt it will catch on. Most will continue to just ask their next door neighbor. Word-of-mouth remains “where it’s at”.

    • Patient Kit

      Many patients do actually research their doctors these days, to varying degrees of thoroughness. But I think it’s more common than you think. Older people who may not be as computer savvy, ask their kids and grandkids to research docs for them. I do get recommendations for docs from people I trust — and then I research them (the recommended doc, not the good neighbor).

  • EmilyAnon

    How does a patient judge what the proper number is when asking how many of a certain procedure the doctor has performed. Some procedures have a long learning curve (i.e. robotic surgery) some not. Is there a list somewhere?

  • http://blog.stevenreidbordmd.com/ Steven Reidbord MD

    I like Dr. Jones’ 10 steps, although I agree they seem labor-intensive. While personal research has its advantages, many patients lack the time and expertise to perform steps 2-4. Assuming the patient knows what kind of doctor is needed (step 1) and seeks a referral in a distant city, here’s what I recommend: Call the relevant department of the closest large teaching hospital and ask for a faculty referral. While being on the teaching faculty doesn’t guarantee anything, such doctors have already been vetted by their institutions more thoroughly than most potential patients can hope to do, have better than average professional reputations, and are more likely to be current in their field. If no such doctor is open for new patients, the department secretary or admin often knows reputable specialists in the community with ties to the medical center.

    Another option for asking doctors online about symptoms, e.g., to find out which specialist would be most appropriate, is HealthTap (http://www.healthtap.com), which also has the advantage of being free (same disclaimer: I answer questions for them).

  • drval

    True, this is labor intensive – it took me about 30 minutes to do it for my parents. But 30 minutes of research is well spent, especially if you’re looking for a specialist (for cancer treatment for example). Most people don’t have *that* many choices where they live, so you end up comparing only 3-10 doctors. If you don’t know anyone who can give you a personal reference, what else can you do?

    • Kristy Sokoloski

      I frequently research new specialists that may be taking care of me. That research will also include trying to find out what year they graduated from school. However, like the others have said it is very labor-intensive and most people don’t have 30 minutes to an hour to do this kind of research even when trying to find a specialist to care for a problem. Also, with the way so many doctors are going under a corporate umbrella it’s kind of hard to do this kind of research. The reason is because now with the advent of EMRs and such if you consult an opinion from one doctor in a certain specialty for an opinion about a problem, and then need to see another doctor within the same specialty for a different problem years later that record of the previous visit with a doctor can follow you to the next one. Please see my reply to one of the other posters where I touch on this because this just happened to me last week.

  • ninguem

    You forgot Step 11.

    In the end, you go with the doctor with the cheaper copay.

    • https://www.facebook.com/arobert6 Alice Robertson

      Maybe, but I think doctors like you are severely disadvantaged on review sites. At my own Anthem Insurance site they have added reviews of doctors where the
      small guy is at a major disadvantage. Anthem (or Zagat) cowers down and removes
      reviews of Cleveland Clinic doctors and other conglomerated big guys do
      the same, therefore, patients will be reading reviews of private doctors
      that stink, and the salaried doctors working for the big guys will get the clout on those review
      sites (because negative reviews are removed…trust me…I know firsthand:). It’s a stacked deck that like Angie’s list where the paid-for
      companies get moved up to the point the viewer has chosen a service
      provider by the time they reach number three on the page.

    • SarahJ89

      Or the only doctor in your area who’s taking new patients.

  • http://blog.stevenreidbordmd.com/ Steven Reidbord MD

    Hardly. Volunteer faculty, private practice.

    Funny thing I’ve noticed: newer docs charging more than older ones. Maybe it’s the loan burden? In any case, I haven’t found a correlation between expertise and fees.

  • Lisa

    When I have had to find a new doctor, I asked friends who they like and who they would avoid. Then I set up an appointment with the new doctor, just to talk and to get a feeling if I liked them. This has worked well for me.

    I don’t trust on line reviews as there often seems to be a disconnect.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    Dr. Jones must live in a city with plenty of docs.

    When I worked in rural Oregon 10 years ago patients had to submit an application to get into the practice. Most didn’t get in. Sad but true. If we had let in too many old sickies with bad insurance the practice would have gone under. As it turned out, we let in just enough old sickies with bad insurance to severely impair but not to kill the practice.

    And the doc shortage has only gotten worse.

    My brother and sister-in-law live in rural Oregon and she has health problems and gets lousy medical care from the local chaotic community health center (CCHC). But they have Oregon Health Plan and so have no other choice.

    • SarahJ89

      Same here. There’s no real choice, just who will take you. Not that it matters, really. They’re all owned by the same hospital so it’s a cookie-cutter affair.