Finding the right doctor isn't easy—and it shouldn't be. When you put your life in someone else's hands, you need to feel confident that this is an individual with enough smarts, qualifications, and skills to give you the care you deserve. You should shop for a doctor "the same way you interview a lawyer or an accountant," says Don Powell, president of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthy behavior. He notes that you could be starting one of the most important professional relationships you ever have. "People know more about how to buy a car than they do about selecting a doctor," says Powell. It's not so much a matter of labeling a doctor as "good" or "bad"—you want to go beyond just weeding out physicians who have gotten themselves into professional or legal hot water. It's about comfort level; whether a particular doctor is good for you. Smart questions and a little healthy skepticism can help you find Dr. Right.
Evaluating a Doctor: What to Consider
What kind of care are you looking for? A primary care doctor helps keep you healthy, provides a home base for all your medical needs, and is your go-to when you're sick. A specialist has a deeper but narrower skill set, and may serve only a short-term purpose, like diagnosing a problem or designing a treatment regimen. Experts suggest starting with a primary care doctor who can then help direct you to the most appropriate specialist or sub-specialist (think cardiologist for a possible heart problem or a cardiac electrophysiologist for a heart rhythm problem), should the need arise.
Having roughly determined the general category of physician, the next step is to ask yourself what blend of experience and personality traits are important to you so that you and the doctor will be a good fit. It's a mix that obviously depends on the relationship you will have with the doctor. If it's long-term, such as one with a primary care doctor or with a specialist who sees you for an ongoing condition, personality and demeanor will carry more weight than if it's a one- or two-time encounter with a specialist or surgeon.
You'll want to be alert for warning flags, which are more likely to be cautionary yellow than stop-now red. Where a doctor went to medical school and did his residency training are good to know. (Resources like U.S. News's Top Medical Schools shed light on program quality.) But how much emphasis to place on a doctor's schooling is contentious. Some medical experts believe that the best medical schools produce better doctors by being more selective and training the future physicians more rigorously. Others say education is only a consideration if it raises one of those yellow flags. "Some people go out of the country as a roundabout way to get a medical degree," Powell says. "Is that person less competent, or is there a reason why [he] couldn't get into a U.S. medical school? Maybe not, but it's another question to ask. And if the doctor isn't willing to answer, that says something."
Once the candidates are narrowed down to a manageable number, Google is your friend. Most doctors have at least some degree of online presence that can give you valuable insights. "You can tell how transparent a doctor is based on how friendly his site is," says internist Kevin Pho of Nashua, N.H., a popular medical blogger. "What kind of communicator does he appear to be? Does it seem like he's available via E-mail?" Any research papers he's authored and displays might give you an idea of special interests and strengths, too. But a website is just one evaluation tool, not a deal-breaker. A doctor who doesn't have one could be the one you want.
If a doctor's gender makes a difference to you, there may be more to think about than just personal preference: Studies have found that female doctors may do a better job than their male peers of providing basic preventive services to both men and women. Evidence suggests that women do prefer care from female doctors, particularly if they need screening tests for breast, cervical, or colon cancer. (Male patients are more open to a physician of either gender.)