"Finding a doctor before you get sick is especially important now that more insurance plans are requiring that PCPs serve as gatekeepers for our medical needs," says Trisha Torrey, author of You Bet Your Life: The Ten Mistakes Every Patient Makes. Your mission: To locate an MD with great experience; an organized, friendly office staff; and, most of all,the ability to collaborate well with you (it is,after all, your body and health). Heres how.
Go to your network
Your social network, that is. Start by asking your friends and family (and any doctors you have and like) for the names of their favorite docs. This method may seem unscientific, but in one recent survey, doctors ranked getting a recommendation from family or friends as the most valuable way for you to choose a good physician. Consider also checking an online doctor-rating site, like vitals.com or zocdoc.com. Just keep in mind that opinions from others may be a good gauge of a doctors bedside manner (which is indeed important), but not necessarily a way to measure her medical ability. "Friends who have had only annual checkups dont have as good a sense of their doctors medical competence, so see if you can ask someone whos had health trouble," Torrey says. "If they felt well-served by the doctor, thats a better bet."
That was true for Abby Gardner, 36, a New York City website editor: "Recently, I noticed a spot on my chest. My friend suggested I see her doctor, Dr. Henry Lee." Dr. Lee had found a melanoma on Gardners friends roommate, who raved about his care and professionalism. "He not only checked the spot, but also found a mole on my thigh that turned out to be was so glad to have a thorough doctor who caught it early."
If your friends dont give you any good leads, contact your nearest academic medical center (a hospital linked to a medical school, also known as a teaching hospital) and ask for a referral. "Those centers are usually highly rated," says Lisa Rubenstein, MD, director of the VA/UCLA/RAND Center for the Study of Healthcare Provider Behavior.
Check out her credentials
Vet the office
You can find out some key details about a prospective doctor just by calling her. Start with how youre greeted. If the receptionist treats you poorly, it may be a sign that the practice isnt respectful of patients in general, says Torrey. If the doctor and her staff are nice and professional, on the other hand, you will know that she runs a practice where patients are treated with respect.
Size her up in person
Once youre finally face-to-face with the MD, do a gut check. Do you feel comfortable? Your health will benefit if you do: A recent study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that patients who had empathetic, engaged physicians felt more supported and were better able to take charge of their own well-being. Last year, Brenda Avadian, of Los Angeles, went in search of a new primary care doctor because her last one was dismissive of her complaints of exhaustion. She vetted a prospective doc online, then set up an appointment. "After an hour, I decided to switch to him," says Avadian, 52, who works in the caregiving industry. "He really took time to listen to me." Her new doctor ordered a complete blood panel, and within a couple of days, Avadian had a diagnosis: Her thyroid was sluggish. "The problem could have gotten worse," she says. "It worked out because I found a doctor who really listens."
You may not get an hour with your prospective PCP the way Avadian did, but all you need is a few minutes to tell if shes up to snuff. Dr. Rubenstein recommends that you bring three questions about your health issues, big or small, to your first appointment. As the doctor answers your queries, think to yourself: Does she explain things well? Does she consult with me and give me time to ask follow-up questions? A doctor who does these thingsand makes you feel comfortablejust might be your perfect match.