The Good Doctor
By Meryl Davids Landau
New research can help you pick a physician who's right for you.
Many of us begin our search for a new doctor by asking friends and relatives. That's OK -- for a start. But keep in mind that it's not like asking for a restaurant recommendation. There's no way ordinary people can judge a physician's clinical skills. By the same token, patients may put too much emphasis on personality. In a 2006 study at UCLA, many doctors who received high praise from patients didn't follow recommended practice guidelines, reports John Chang, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the university.
So, how do you find a physician who's both competent and caring? Here are the essential things to check for:
* Current board certification in the specialty he'll be practicing on you: A physician may claim to be "board-certified" and a plastic surgeon. But before you sign on for liposuction, you should verify that the certification is not in OB-GYN or another unrelated specialty, cautions Eric Schneider, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Look up the physician at abms.org (the Web site for the American Board of Medical Specialties).
* A clean record: To make sure the doctor is currently licensed and has no disciplinary charges, enter her name at docboard.org. Depending on where you live, you might need to link from the site to your state medical board, which may offer additional information about the doctor's practice.
* Affiliation with a good hospital: If you require surgery or treatment for a serious illness, you'll be admitted to the hospital where your doctor has privileges. And any specialists he recommends are likely to practice there too. See how hospitals in your area stack up at the government's hospitalcompare.hhs.gov. The Leapfrog Group, an organization devoted to the improvement of health care, also provides hospital info (leapfroggroup.org).
If you want to go further in your search, consider these factors, as highlighted in recent studies:
* The doctor's age: This one may surprise you. When a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School reviewed 62 studies last year, it found that younger doctors often outshone their older peers. They were significantly more likely than older doctors to suggest lifesaving screening tests (like certain cancer screenings), and they also tended to follow current treatment guidelines. Physicians who were 20 years or more past medical school often stuck with what they had learned during their training, even if it was no longer considered optimal.