Finding a doctor whom you like, trust and feel heard by is not an easy feat. On top of all that, they have to have an appointment available, which is often another frustrating challenge.
There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a doctor — maybe you want someone who identifies as your gender or maybe you’re just hoping to be within a specific hospital system.
Whatever it is, many things go into a good patient-doctor relationship. We spoke to doctors themselves about what they look for when choosing a medical professional for their health needs:
They make sure the doctor is board-certified.
“I think the most important thing is you want to be sure they’re board-certified,” said Dr. Nate Wood, an internal medicine doctor at Yale Medicine. “In the United States, you have to have a license to practice medicine — you do not have to be board-certified.”
For example, for a primary care physician, Wood said he looks for a doctor who is board-certified in either internal medicine or family medicine.
You can find this information online — board certifications are often listed on the practice’s website — or you can call the front desk staff and ask them.
They look for someone who doesn’t make you feel like a number.
“I look for someone who’s empathic, but the question is: How do you figure that out?” said Dr. John Schumann, the executive medical director of Oak Street Health, who’s based in Oklahoma.
First, you want someone who is going to make you feel important. “You want to feel like they’re not rushed and they can give you attention, and they can look you in the eye and they can listen,” he said.
Additionally, he said he looks for a doctor who treats him like a human. “If I have a visit with a doctor and they really treat me more like an object or disease or a thing or a number and don’t really respect my humanity, that’s going to make me feel really uncomfortable and I will not go back to that.”
This is an aspect of finding a doctor that will take some trial and error (you can’t tell ahead of time if they’ll make you feel like a number). But remember that it’s OK to break up with your doctor.
They make sure the front office staff doesn’t make you feel like a number either.
According to Schumann, it’s fairly common for patients to complain to doctors about the staff within a practice.
“When I’m the patient, even if I like the doctor, if the office staff treats me poorly or treats me like a number that’s not a warm feeling and I might not want to go back to that practice,” Schumann said.
While your doctor is likely the reason you go to a specific practice, Wood added that it’s important to remember you often only see your doctor for about 15 or 20 minutes, which makes your relationship with the office staff important for any pre- or post-appointment needs.
This makes it doubly important to find a practice where the front desk staff is helpful and where the nurses provide you with good information, Wood noted.
They want a doctor who shares medical records with the local hospital.
If your doctor works at a practice outside of a major hospital system, it’s crucial that they readily share records with your local hospital, according to Wood.
“Because if you’re getting admitted to the hospital and they cannot see what you and your primary care doctor are working on, that’s a huge gap in data that can really impact care,” Wood said.
To figure out how a doctor shares (or does not share) information with a local hospital, you can ask the front desk staff, Wood noted.
It’s a red flag if they say the hospital can call them and have them fax over the information. Ideally, you want to go to a doctor who has a simple solution for sharing medical records, like if the records are available through the hospital’s online system.
Specifically, Wood said he likes to go to a primary care physician who is affiliated with the local hospital.
They also don’t want a doctor who pushes certain products (in most cases).
“If a doctor or provider tries to sell me products, I personally detest that,” Schumann said.
He said he goes to a doctor for advice, counsel, warmth and treatment — not to be sold special supplements or cure-alls.
To be clear, necessary prescriptions do not fall in this category. If your doctor is prescribing you a medication for your blood pressure or to help with migraines, for example, that’s different.
“I just find it distasteful if a provider sells you some kind of proprietary formula of things and they stand to profit off it,” Schumann said.
In this case, not only are you paying for your visit, but you’re also paying for a product that you probably don’t need. Schumann made an exception for dermatology practices where some products are only available at the doctor’s office.
They look for someone who responds in a timely manner.
Getting a doctor’s appointment is not easy, especially now with understaffed medical fields and patients catching up on appointments as we move through the COVID pandemic.
Certain headaches that come with scheduling an appointment are a result of both of these challenges while others are the result of a practice that may not be great at planning ahead or doesn’t think about the patient experience.
“I think if you find the system that you’re trying to schedule in not user-friendly, not inviting, the wait times are too long” you may want to look elsewhere for an appointment, Schumann stated.
Some practices make this process more streamlined and easier on the patient, Schumann noted. Wood added if you leave a message for your doctor, you should pay attention to how long it takes your doctor to get back to you. Generally, physicians are good at deciding what message needs to be replied to ASAP and what can wait until later.
“If their definition of later is weeks, that is really quite inappropriate,” Wood said.
For a serious concern, he said he would not want to wait longer than 24 hours for a response. For something less time-sensitive, he would want to hear back within a week. Taking too long to get back to you can be indicative of a problem within the practice.
“If it’s any more than that either there’s some disorganization in the back or they’re quite overwhelmed — both of which are not so great, both of which I understand. This is a really hard practice to be in, primary care,” Wood stated.
They look for a physician who can easily explain health issues or treatment plans.
It’s not rare to go to the doctor and have no idea what the medical jargon they’re using means — and that’s not a good thing.
“You want to make sure that they’re good at explaining in language that you can understand,” Wood said. “Because if you don’t understand what’s happening with your body or what the plan is, then the chances of you having a positive health outcome are definitely less.”
Additionally, he said it’s important to have a doctor who asks for your feedback on your treatment plan, which is a practice known as patient-centered care.
You should work together on figuring out the best solution for you. If someone is barking orders at you, you may want to find a new doctor.
Overall, doctors go to doctors with good reputations.
It’s also a good idea to ask friends or family for advice regarding the best doctors in your area (Schumann said he’ll regularly ask colleagues for provider advice). And better yet if that friend or family member works in the medical field.
You can also google your provider to see what kind of reviews they have online, but Schumann pointed out the reviews aren’t as reputable as online reviews for things like restaurants or hotels.
“What I would say is cross reference these things … online ratings plus local reputation plus family and friends plus how you’re treated when you try to access the practice — it’s a combination of all those things,” Schumann said.
And, the right doctor for you may not be the right doctor for your sister. It’s highly individual, but also important to remember that there is a doctor out there with your best interests at heart.