Tuesday Tips: Shopping for a Doctor

One of my most stressful experiences as a parent was reading a letter from my child's doctor saying that they were no longer going to use our insurance provider -- just as my daughter toddled down the stairs asking me why she had pink dots all over her. I had to scramble to find a doctor who was not only covered by our insurance company but also someone I could trust with my daughter's very immediate problem. I ended up calling a friend who pointed me in the direction of her pediatrician, who we still use today. (Turns out my kid was allergic to the penicillin she was taking for an ear infection.) Shopping for a doctor is not something that should have to be done while your child breaks out in itchy, pink dots. Here are a few tips for a more peaceful doctor search:

Tip #1: Think about what kind of features you want in a doctor. These days many offer open-access scheduling, which gets you an appointment the day you call in. Some also offer quick in-and-out appointments for simple ailments like a sore throat. "That way you don't have to take a whole day off work just for a simple matter," says Jim King, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other doctors are allowing patients to e-mail them with questions, which is great for those of us who forget all their questions once they step foot in the exam room.

Tip #2: Set up a get-to-know-you meeting with the doctors you're considering. Some will charge for the meeting and some insurance companies won't cover these kinds of visits. But it may be worth it just to be able to ask a few questions and to see if your personalities match.

Tip #3: Go with a doctor that's been board certified, says King. While every doctor needs a licence to diagnose and treat patients, seeking a board certification is voluntary. But it demonstrates their expertise in a particular speciality or subspeciality. The American Board of Medical Specialties has a free tool to check if doctors are board certified. Just be prepared to register to use it.

Tip #4: Don't rule out a doctor who's had a medical malpractice suit brought against him. "You would never see an OB/GYN if you ruled out doctors who've never been sued," King says. "Medical malpractice has very little to do with the physician's abilities." However, a red flag would be someone who's had several suits brought against them. You can also check with Administrators in Medicine, which has an online tool for finding out disciplinary action taken against doctors.

Tip #5: Ask a prospective doctor for a copy of their "patients' handbook" to get some insight into how things run at the practice. It will explain how they handle everything from prescription refills to hospital admittance procedures.

Tip #6: Don't automatically rule out a doctor who got their medical education overseas. Where they did their residency and whether they're board certified should be bigger determining factors. "You would want to find someone who has done some residency training in this country so they're familiar with the way the system works," says Joel Keehn, a senior editor at Consumer Reports magazine.

Tip #7: There's nothing like the power of word of mouth. Ask friends and neighbors where they go for medical care.

Have you had to search for a new doctor lately? How did you find him or her? What other tools are out there for finding good doctors? Post a comment below.

While we're on the subject of good health... have you been grocery shopping lately? Who's got the better deals these days -- Giant, Safeway or Shoppers Food Warehouse? I'll let you know what I think on Thursday but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Send me an e-mail: shoptoit@washingtonpost.com.

By Tania Anderson |  June 24, 2008; 3:00 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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I recently changed doctors and asked friends for recommendations. Most of the doctors they suggested do not participate in any insurance plans, so I had to search further. I called several from my Care First BC/BS FEP plan, and the first two I called were not accepting new patients. I finally chose a doctor based on the hospital where she practiced.

Posted by: JGM | June 24, 2008 10:51 AM

Wow, what a halcyon view of the process. I am being evaluated as a potential kidney donor. The situation is somewhat complicated because the actual transplant will take place in a distant state. Because I am lucky enough to enjoy good health, I don't have a primary care provider. I need an extensive workup (which my insurance pays for to see if I can donate a kidney. I called Washington Hospital Center and GW Medical Faculty Associates (where I was a patient several years ago) and was told to get lost, not taking new patients. I have an appointment with a doctor in a small group practice in -- wait for it -- OCTOBER. Geez, I hope the person who needs my kidney is not on dialysis by then.

Posted by: Aggravated | June 24, 2008 4:51 PM

I'm a big fan of medical schools which Ms. Anderson failed to mention. Being on the faculty of a medical school usually means the doctor is well trained and current in his or her specialty. If you don't want to endure the possible inconvenience of going to the medical school, you can always call the relevant department at the school and ask for a recommendation of someone in your area they've trained.

Posted by: Minor | June 26, 2008 1:35 PM

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