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Choosing a New Doctor? 5 Questions You Must Ask

Choosing a New Doctor? 5 Questions You Must Ask

If you spend more time researching a new plumber than you do a new doctor, you may want to change your focus.

My patient came in with wrist pain. She had fallen and seen a general orthopedic surgeon in her small town, who did an x-ray and saw no fracture. Still in pain, she went to see him a week later with the same results, so she came to the ER. I didn’t see any fracture either, so I snapped a picture of her x-ray on my phone and texted it to an orthopedic surgeon that specialized in hand and wrist. In five minutes he texted me back. He agreed that there was no fracture, but on his iPhone screen he had noticed that the bones were about 2 mm further apart than they should be—a subtle sign that she had ruptured the ligament connecting them and needed immediate surgery. Her surgery was arranged and she was soon on the road to recovery.

Am I criticizing the first orthopedist? Not at all. This woman had a complex injury that required someone who examined 20 wrist x-rays a day. Given the second doctor’s specialty, he was better able to pick up on a tiny discrepancy. For a different type of bone-related injury (say a broken leg), the first orthopedist would likely have been a better choice than a hand surgeon.

The reality is that all doctors are not created equal. Many doctors have trained for many years and hours and they are exceptional. But no one can be exceptional at everything and each has his or her own strengths. When you have a particular condition, you should go to the physician best trained and experienced to care for you.

The problem is, most patients I speak with don’t know that 1. These differences can have a major impact in their care and 2. They don’t know how to find the right doctor for their condition. So, here’s a cheat sheet of what I tell friends to look for in a doctor. Take these questions as a group—no one factor comes with any guarantees. But when you consider them together, you’ll likely find a doctor who’s the best fit for you.

1. Education: Where did the doctor go to medical school? Is it a name you’re familiar with?

2. Training: How much—and what type—of training does the doctor have? All doctors are required to complete a residency that lasts three years or more, depending on their specialty. Also look for board certification, which means the doctor has a certain degree of experience and has passed multiple tests in that specialty. Some doctors go beyond that to a fellowship (a subspecialty). If you have a specific condition (glaucoma, ovarian cancer, ruptured MCL, carpal tunnel), it’s always good to find out if the doctor you’re considering has fellowship training. How do you do that? Look at their online profiles and, if in doubt, call the doctor’s office and ask.

3. Patient profile: What ages does the doctor treat? This is especially important if you’re seeking care for a child. While most doctors receive some pediatric training, others have much more. It’s imperative to see a doctor who understands how a child’s growth will affect healing. The best way to be sure a doctor is, in fact, trained in pediatrics is to see which ones are affiliated with your local children’s hospital.

4. Experience: Is the doctor practiced in dealing with your condition? When you need to have a procedure done, you want a doctor who does it all the time. You can increase these chances by going to a doctor with that subspecialty, but also try to find out the number of procedures the doctor does each year. Again, you can’t just go by the numbers, but it’s another piece in the puzzle to help you decide.

5. Get a referral: Need a specialist? Ask your primary doctor for a referral. In the nuanced world of medicine, physicians often know which doctors are better for certain conditions than others and can help point you in the right direction.

Still not sure? Use the same criteria above to find another doctor and get a second opinion. This is especially important if you’re having an elective procedure. By getting a second opinion you’ll learn more about your condition and gain a different doctor’s perspective for treating it.

Yes, these steps take time. But if you’ve ever spent longer choosing a hairstylist/mechanic/caterer/home contractor than you have choosing a doctor, it’s time to change that focus. Do yourself (and your health) a favor—take time to do the research. You’ll have a better chance of finding just the right doctor when you need him or her the most.

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