As for age, older doctors obviously have more experience to bring to the examining table and younger ones may be more savvy about advances and more open to new techniques, but that doesn't readily translate to conclusions about which ones are likelier to be better doctors. It's your call.
It's smart—and completely within your rights—to set up an introductory phone call with any doctor you're considering. Most doctors will make time to do this, experts say. Does he or she sound like someone you could relate to? "People sometimes think this is a binary decision—you gather information, you pick one of the doctors, and then all the dominos fall into place," says Carolyn Clancy, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. "Choosing a doctor is step one. Working with [him or her] is the rest of the process." A few leading questions can shed light on a doctor's decision-making style, and whether she works with patients to design a treatment plan or whether she feels strongly that she's the doctor and what she says goes. For example: "Can I weigh in when I have ideas about my care?" Neither approach is right or wrong.
Finding the Best Primary Care
Everyone needs a doctor trained in treating and managing the usual run of medical problems, from colds to migraines, as well as chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. He will assess your symptoms and, if necessary, direct you to the right specialist. If he's doing his job correctly, he'll also coordinate your care, communicating with other doctors you see and making sure nothing slips through the cracks. Internists, who treat adults ages 18 and over, are the broadest category of primary care providers. Some women choose their gynecologist as their primary care doctor. Geriatricians specialize in older people. Family practitioners see both children and adults; in small towns, their services often include obstetrics and minor surgery. Pediatricians, of course, treat kids. Besides M.D.'s, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are reasonable options for healthy patients who are interested in wellness care and counseling.
Most often, patients look for a primary care physician by asking family and friends for suggestions, and experts say that's fine for starters. But finding out why your brother or aunt likes the doctor is critical. "One of my family members chose a doctor based on a friend's recommendation," Clancy says. "Then she found out that her friend preferred a patriarchal figure who gives orders. That relationship did not work out."
Online resources claiming inside information on physicians are abundant, but most simply list easily attainable contact information and facts about the physician's medical education, board certification, and possible disciplinary actions. U.S. News's Top Doctors, a compendium of more than 27,000 physicians nationwide, can identify doctors recommended by their peers based on their clinical skills, including how well they relate to patients, and other qualifications such as education, training, hospital appointments, and administrative posts. Top Doctors is linked up with the U.S. News Best Hospitals rankings so you can see which physicians are at the nation's best hospitals, and narrow the field by specialty or location.
There also are websites like HealthGrades.com or RateMDs.com where patients can post reviews of their doctors. Proceed with caution. A typical primary care provider may have several thousand patients, and very few doctors on such sites are rated by more than a tiny handful. "A lot of doctors don't have a representative set of ratings," Pho says. "If you see a doctor with two or three ratings, they're likely going to be very negative or very positive, and I'm not sure how accurate that is."
Suppose you need hospital care at some point, as most people do even if it's only for a routine outpatient procedure. If you're young and healthy, the hospital a doctor is affiliated with might not matter much, but if you have a problematic medical history or you're moving into old age, it could be significant. Would you prefer to be close to home, or are you open to a better hospital farther away, if that's where your doctor has admitting privileges? If you have knee problems, for example, a hospital that does a high volume of joint replacements and has a good track record would be a candidate. You can find out any doctor's hospital affiliations by calling his office or by asking the hospital, which has a database of affiliated primary care physicians and specialists.