Experts consider board certification one of the best indicators of competency and training. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2010, for example, described a "robust relationship" between board certification and quality of care. It isn't hard to understand why. A board-certified specialist has gone through a rigorous residency followed by more training in the specialty and finally testing and peer evaluation (plus periodic recertification). A doctor's board status can be checked at CertificationMatters.org. The American Board of Medical Specialties recognizes more than 150 specialties and subspecialties, including family practice, internal medicine, surgery, cardiology, and orthopedics.
Sometimes you'll need to move fast. Need further testing to determine whether a spot on your skin is cancerous? A second opinion before beginning an experimental treatment? Been told surgery is a must? In all cases, it's most important to find out about the doctor's experience with patients like you.
The more often a doctor performs a procedure, the better he gets and the lower the chance of calamity. It follows that the more cases he sees like yours, the likelier the results will be good. Finding out is surprisingly simple, and good doctors wish more patients would make the effort. You only need to ask directly how many patients like you the doctor has seen over a recent period and how they fared. If you're discussing heart bypass surgery, for example, what you want to know is the number of these procedures the specialist has performed in the past 12 or 24 months on patients in your age group in similar physical and medical condition and the death and complication rates for those patients. To put the answers in perspective, ask if there are national benchmarks to use as comparison.
Deaths are almost unknown in some procedures, such as hip and knee replacements, so an impressively low figure may be misleading. For those, what counts is the percentage of patients who returned to a good quality of life, and—again, for patients like you—how long that typically took.
Vague responses ("Oh, my patients have very few complications") or figures that worry you are yellow flags. As for a doctor who brushes off your questions, that's one of those rare red flags that should make you politely end the conversation. You're never obligated to proceed with a specific doctor. "Everybody is different in what they're looking for," Beckman says. Trust your instincts—coupled with the legwork you've done, they will guide you. The bottom line, experts agree: Taking control of your care is worth the extra effort.