How to Find a Good Doctor

Insider advice for getting the best medical care.

By Tara Parker-Pope from Reader's Digest | June 2005

Ask the Right Questions
It’s an open secret in medicine that doctors often receive better medical care than the average patient. Part of the reason is professional courtesy — doctors give other doctors the red-carpet treatment.

But doctors may also get better care because they know how to get it. They take time to find the best practitioners in each field, they ask the right questions, and they know the secrets of the health care system. Even patients who are limited in their choices by a managed health plan can shop around for top-level care by following some basic advice from those who know best:

Find the Best Doctors Ask your doctor the questions that another doctor would ask.

Start now. The most important thing you can do for your own health, doctors say, is to build a relationship with a primary-care physician. “It’s important to get a doctor before an emergency arises,” advises Carol K. Kasper, an internist at Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles. “A person shouldn’t put it off because he feels healthy. In an emergency, one can sometimes get better care faster by saying, ‘I’m Dr. Blank’s patient.’ ”

Look at the frames on the wall. When doctors walk into an exam room, they know to look for a diploma to see where the doctor went to medical school. They also look for the state license and board certification in specialties or subspecialties recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. And they ask colleagues where they trained — someone who has trained with another top professional will eagerly brag about it.

Choose a hospital too. Ask your physician where he or she has hospital privileges. Many doctors look for MDs who are affiliated with a medical-school teaching hospital. It requires considerable time, expertise and professional recommendations to win privileges at such a facility. “They’ve been through a filter of questions that patients can’t ask,” explains Kenneth H. Falchuk, professor at Harvard Medical School and the co-chairman of bestdoctors.com.

Pick the hospital first; then select a physician who works there, suggests Pamela F. Gallin, director of pediatric ophthalmology at Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian/Columbia. Patients often are treated by a team of “invisible” doctors, including radiologists and anesthesiologists, so choosing the best hospital gives added assurance about all patient care.

Go for a pro. Whether it’s for a colonoscopy or orthopedic surgery, doctors ask their own doctors how many procedures they perform. “If I’m going in, I want a team of people used to doing this procedure over and over again,” says former emergency-room physician Kevin J. Soden in Charlotte, North Carolina. What’s the magic number? That depends on the procedure. For guidelines, consult the board that certified the doctor in his specialty.

Pay attention to details. Does your doctor perform an exam every time you visit? Does he talk to you during the checkup, explaining what he hears or sees or what your blood pressure reading is? Does he listen to what you say, or interrupt your answers?

New York cardiologist Evan S. Levine suggests checking out your doctor’s stethoscope. Ask where it came from and how it compares with other models. He says it’s a small detail that can give you insight into your doctor’s priorities. The top-of-the-line models cost about $200, and Levine says he would be wary if the stethoscope has pink tubing or the name of a drug brand — which suggests it was a freebie from a pharmaceutical representative.

Cincinnati pathologist Lawrence M. Unger suggests visiting a potential hospital. Consider: Is the facility clean? Are employees standing around socializing or are they working with purpose? Do water fountains and elevators work? Small details like these, Unger says, are good indicators of how efficiently the facility operates.