Jan. 19, 2001 -- Whether you're new in town, your insurance coverage has changed, or you're facing a health concern that calls for a specialist, chances are that you'll be looking for a new doctor at some point. But finding a physician you'll be happy with can take a lot of effort on your part.
According to experts, people often choose a doctor based on gender. But researchers in northern California say that using gender to make your decision doesn't always mean you'll be satisfied with your medical care. And although the three A's -- affability, availability, ability -- are important, you also should look at the C's -- credentials, certification, competence, and convenience.
So just how do you go about picking a doctor? One way is to use the Internet, where medical organizations including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many others list their members and their qualifications. A number of hospitals and medical centers also provide such information.
In addition, some hospital systems offer call-in services that can provide detailed information on physicians who practice in their facilities.
Dottie McCluskey is director of telemanagement for Texas Health Resources, which operates the Well Call Center for Harris Methodist hospitals and Presbyterian Healthcare System in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan area. The service, free to both doctors and patients, makes physician referrals for 5,000 doctors who practice at 11 hospitals. They receive about 35,000 requests for referrals each year.
According to McCluskey, the first thing you should do when searching for a doctor is to determine what's important to you.
"The call should start with the caller themselves. They should think about the profile of the physician they want before they call. That really helps us," she tells WebMD.
The patient should consider whether they want a doctor near their work or their home, if they need a specialist or a primary care physician, and if they need someone who treats senior citizens and who accepts Medicare, McCluskey says.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend deciding if the hospitals where the doctor practices will be a factor in your decision.
Other considerations from the NIH that may be important to you are:
- Age, sex, race, or religion of the doctor
- Single doctor or group practice
- Office hours
- Average length of office visit
- Handling of emergency calls
- A substitute for the doctor if he/she is away
Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD, president of the American Society of Internal Medicine, says to call friends, local hospitals, and medical societies to find names of physicians. "A lot of times, the same names will come up. Narrow it down to three to five, then call the offices," she recommends. "See how it feels -- if you can get through or you are put on hold a lot."
Adamson Fryhofer also says that it's very important to check board certification and whether they are fellows in medical organizations in the specialties they practice. If they are, it's an indication that they get continuing education in their medical field and are up-to-date. You can obtain that information from the physicians' offices and from most of the professional medical associations.
Another tip from Adamson Fryhofer is to find a primary care physician with whom you can communicate and who is comfortable dealing with any particular health issues you have. "You need someone who will direct your medical care and will refer you to specialists if necessary," she says. "You should not be afraid to ask physicians about these things; a good primary care physician won't be threatened by these types of questions."
McCluskey's Presbyterian Healthcare Well Call team gives each patient up to three or four physicians' names, depending on how many they have listed for the requested specialty. They update their physician profiles every six months, with critical information -- such as change of location or phone numbers -- added every three months. The profiles include all medical training, certification by medical associations and boards, contact information, insurance participation, special procedures, foreign languages spoken in the office, hours, type of practice, special procedures, etc.
"The top questions we receive are about gender of the doctor and insurance; age is third," McCluskey says. "Usually, the younger women, ages about 18-30, request a female doctor for their ob-gyn." She tells WebMD that the request for gender doesn't seem as important to their callers when it involves other specialties.
Researchers from California, who surveyed more than 10,000 men and women (average age 56) belonging to a large HMOs, were surprised to learn that women patients who chose women doctors were the least satisfied with their care. Conversely, men who chose women were the most satisfied. Nonetheless, the women surveyed were more likely to choose a woman physician than were the male respondents.
According to one of the study's authors, Joe Selby, MD, the level of patient satisfaction may be tied to their expectations of the physician. These factors include communication and technical skills. Selby is director of the Division of Research for Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program of Northern California.
"In general, women had somewhat greater expectations of their primary care physicians," Selby tells WebMD. "This included the physician's willingness to listen to the patient and the physician's technical expertise."
The NIH says an initial interview/exam with a doctor may help in your selection process, since that will give you a sense of how well you can communicate. Although most physicians will charge an office visit fee for this meeting, it will give you a chance to ask specific questions that will be invaluable to your healthcare in the long run.