When you need a doctor, you don’t just need any old doctor—you need the right doctor at the right time in the right place. But how do you get those circumstances to line up? The truth is, the best time to look for a doctor is when you don’t need one. This requires taking a proactive stance in your health and understanding the role a doctor plays in the big healthcare picture.
The Doctor’s Role
Doctors play an important role in the healthcare setting, but it’s important to understand where that role begins and ends. Vicki Rackner, MD, a former surgeon who now serves as a coach and an expert in doctor/patient/caregiver collaboration, says many of us were raised with the mentality that the doctor was an authority figure and have treated the doctor/patient relationship like the parent/child relationship. “We’re in transition now,” Dr. Rackner explains. “We’re moving from doctor as authority to doctor as consultant.”
It’s an empowering transition for many patients, as they realize the possibilities of participating in their own care. “I think my generation, and those even older, have had doctors on a pedestal for too long,” insists Martha Farnes from Eagle, Idaho. Over the years Martha has learned—through trial and error— what she is looking for in a doctor. Now she watches from the sidelines as her daughters, both young moms themselves, make more-assertive healthcare choices.
As patients navigate within this new dynamic, Dr. Rackner says, they realize the power they have to direct their own care and to heed their own intuition in building their healthcare team. “We’re learning to trust our own small, still voice,” she says.
Forging A Healthy Doctor/Patient Relationship
That inner voice is valuable, but it’s still not a total replacement for expert medical guidance. Ideally, patients will take personal responsibility, working in tandem with a provider they trust. “I believe that the doctor/patient relationship is the foundation of the entire healthcare system,” Dr. Rackner says.
In describing the value of this important relationship, Dr. Rackner refers to what she calls the “connection prescription”: doctors offer a caring, human connection that is critical in the healthcare setting. Dr. Rackner teaches patients how to get connected and stay connected.
“We should choose a doctor with the same care and caution with which we choose a life partner,” she insists. She compares the doctor/patient relationship to a blind date: sometimes it looks good on paper, but the chemistry just isn’t there. If the chemistry isn’t there, we don’t go on a second date. The same should be true for a doctor, but sometimes it’s harder to identify what qualifies as “good chemistry” in the doctor’s office.
Choosing A Doctor
Ultimately, you’re in charge, and it’s up to you to determine what you want in a doctor. Dr. Rackner encourages patients to start with the question If I could make my ideal doctor, what qualities would he or she have?
Many of us don’t consider this question until we encounter a doctor who didn’t meet our needs. Martha had two different experiences in which she had to “fire” doctors before she learned what was important to her. “I like a doctor who is a good listener, asks questions, makes time for his patients, has a healthy lifestyle, and encourages his patients to, also,” she says.
Martha is on the right track in identifying the characteristics that are important to her. The next step—and often the more challenging one—is finding someone who embodies those qualities. One tried-and- true way to do this is to ask for referrals. Often friends and family members can provide a referral, but there are also online services, such as HealthGrades, that offer doctor ratings.
Once you have a referral, it’s important to interview doctors with the same level of scrutiny with which you would interview a babysitter for your kids. Take the time to determine whether a doctor is a good match for you before you need that doctor in an emergency situation.
Finally, Dr. Rackner says it’s important to remember that “sometimes the best doctor isn’t a doctor at all. There are also nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. Quite often they can be a better match for someone.”
Knowing When (And How) To Move On
Like in dating, sometimes things just don’t work out with your doctor. Marlo Tapley, a senior vice president of sales from Superior, Colorado, had a nagging feeling during her first pregnancy that her OB/GYN was not the right fit. “She was nice, but she didn’t want to spend the time to answer questions for a first-time mom,” Marlo says. “I was just another patient. She wanted to get me in and out the door.”
It turns out that Marlo’s intuition was right. When she went into labor, the doctor insisted it wasn’t labor and sent her home with sleeping pills. Later that night, vomiting and in severe pain from contractions, Marlo found her way to the emergency room, where she discovered that she was indeed in labor. What followed was a difficult delivery, a cursory interaction with her doctor, and no apology.
Armed with that experience, Marlo took a much more proactive role during her second pregnancy. She interviewed a new doctor and asked her forthright questions about how she might handle situations that could arise. The new doctor put Marlo at ease because she was willing to take the time to talk and answer questions. “I look for someone who is willing to understand who I am as a person, as a human being—that I’m not just somebody to process through,” she explains. “I want someone who is willing to make even a small personal investment in me.”
Marlo did everything right. Dr. Rackner says it’s important to figure out what you want and ask for it. If you don’t get it, it’s time to move on and look for it elsewhere. “Ultimately, what people want is to be treated with respect and to work with somebody whom they trust,” she says.
Guidelines for Choosing a Doctor
We need different doctors to serve different needs throughout our lives. Dr. Rackner suggests devising a list of questions that are relevant to your current circumstances. For example, there is a difference between choosing a doctor to deliver your baby versus one who can remove your gallbladder. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What qualities and characteristics are most important to me?
- What kind of personality do I want my doctor to have?
- Do I want someone with a strong academic background?
- Do I want to go to a research facility?
- Is gender or age important to me?
- Are office hours or location a factor in my decision?
- Does the doctor have to be in my insurance network?
- Does the doctor have experience with the issue I’m facing?
- Does the doctor understand the difference between male and female physiology?
- Will the doctor be able to help me navigate life changes, such as menopause?
After you’ve determined exactly what you are looking for in a doctor, conduct interviews. Some doctors provide consultations.
Or you might choose to see a doctor for a small, simple issue that you’re not emotionally invested in so that you can develop a sense of how he or she interacts with you.
Finally, listen to your small, still voice. Is this someone you can feel safe with and trust?