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How to choose a doctor

9 steps to help you find the right doctor for you and your family

Last updated: September 2014

Choosing a primary care doctor is one of the most important health decisions you’ll make. And thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act, which has dramatically increased the number of people with health insurance, more people than ever are now searching for a physician they can call their own.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to find reliable, easy-to-understand information about specific doctors or practices,” Doris Peter, Ph.D., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, said. “Sure, you can check out physician reviews on sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List, but do you really want to find a doctor the same way you do a restaurant or plumber? Probably not.”

Still, there are strategies and resources that can help you find a new doctor or check up on one you already have. Here’s why it’s so important to find a good primary care doctor, what to focus on in your search, and where to go for the information you need.

Get a go-to doctor

More and more insurance plans require that you choose one physician to serve as your main resource. That go-to person can not only help you with day-to-day health problems such as the flu or a sprained ankle but also refer you to specialists when necessary and, important, oversee all of the care you get.

“It may seem like a burden or restrictive to have to choose a primary care provider,” Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser to Consumer Reports, said. “But everyone needs a project manager, so to speak, to help you navigate our confusing health care system.”

Growing research suggests that people who have a strong relationship with a physician not only report greater satisfac­tion with their care but also may enjoy better health. That makes sense, because having good communication and col­lab­oration with the doctor who oversees your care can help make sure you get the tests and treatments you need, and avoid common problems, such as getting duplicative or contradictory treatments from a legion of specialists.

See our Guide to doctor Ratings and our list of state-by-state resources for more on how to choose a doctor. 

Let the search begin

If you know a doctor, nurse, or health care professional, ask for the names of doctors or practices in your area whom they like and trust. That can be more in­sightful than recommendations from friends or family. You should also consider what kind of doctor you want. Someone who can care for your whole family? Someone who focuses on women or older people (see below)? Here are some other things to consider as you search for Dr. Right.

1. Check your insurance

Use your insurer’s directory or search on its website for doctors in your network. Because doctors often add or drop plans, call the office to verify that the doctor still accepts your insurance. (If you are choosing a health plan, use our insurance rankings to compare plans.)

2. Consider hospital affiliation

Your choice of doctor can determine which hospital you go to, if needed, so find out where the doctor has admitting privileges. Then use our hospital Ratings to see how that facility compares with other hospitals in your area.  

3. Look for board certification

Being certified through the American Board of Medical Specialties means a doctor has earned a medical degree from a qualified medical school, completed three to seven years of accredited residency training, is licensed by a state medical board, and has passed one or more exams administered by a member of the ABMS. To maintain the certification, a doctor is expected to participate in continuing education. To see whether a doctor is certified, go to certificationmatters.org.

4. Watch out for red flags

They include malpractice claims and disciplinary actions. Even good doctors can get sued once or twice, but “you certainly don’t want someone who has had a lot of malpractice claims,” Avitzur says. Common reasons for being disciplined include substance abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior, though it can be hard to know exactly why a doctor was sanctioned. Most states let doctors prac­tice while they receive treatment. See our state-by-state list of links to state medical boards and other resources or checking up on doctors.  

5. Consider compatibility

More than half of Americans focus on personality and relationship when choosing a physician, according to a 2014 survey from The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (Just 29 percent said the delivery of care or the patient’s health outcome was most crucial.) Use your first visit as a litmus test. Some factors to consider: Does the doctor listen to you without interrupting? Does she fully answer your questions? Does she explain your diagnosis and treatment, and specify a date for a follow-up visit?

6. Ask about drug reps

Many doctors let representatives from pharma­ceutical companies into their offices to pitch their drugs. That not only takes up a lot of the doctor’s time but also may inappropriately influence his choice of drugs. “That can get patients started on a brand-name medication that may be more expensive or may not be the best one for them,” Peter said. Moreover, a doctor’s attitude toward drug reps can indicate how committed he is to practicing according to the best evidence, not pressures from industry.

7. Find out about office policies

Ask how long it takes to make an appointment for a routine visit (it should be less than a week), whether they offer same-day appointments, and how long patients are kept in the waiting room. Once you’re a patient, if the reality doesn’t meet your expectations, consider shopping around. That’s important not only to save you time but also for your health. In practices that waste patients’ time, research shows that “patients are less likely to follow up on recommendations to prevent or manage chronic conditions,” said L. Gordon Moore, M.D., chief medical officer at Treo Solutions, a data analytics firm.

8. Scrutinize the staff

They are the people who will schedule your appointments, check you in and out, give the doctor your messages, and address insurance concerns. Look for a staff that’s friendly, efficient, and respectful. “Health care is a team sport,” said Lois Margaret Nora, M.D., J.D., and president and CEO of the American Board of Medical Specialties. “People should expect quality in their doctor and the system in which the physician practices.”

9. Factor in technology

Electronic health records let your doctor track your medical history, share info with spe­cialists, and monitor all of your drugs. Many doctors also have a patient portal, a secured website that gives you 24-hour access to your health information, al­lowing you to book and track doctor appointments, get lab results, request prescription refills, and e-mail questions to your doctor. The government requires that health information be protected with passwords, encryption, and other technical safeguards. Still, ask how your information will be safeguarded. (Read our article "The Doctor Will E-mail You Now.")

Where to go for doctor information

Consumer Reports has started to rate primary care doctors, using data from physicians, health plans, employers, hospitals, and consumers. But the effort is now limited to four states—California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. (See our Guide to doctor Ratings.) We also provide Ratings of heart surgery groups, using data from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.  


Here is a quick guide to some other sites that provide information on doctors.


AMA DoctorFinder. Basic information on more than 814,000 physicians in the U.S. You get information on specialty training, board certification, and more. But there is no information on patient outcomes, disciplinary actions, or communication skills.


AngiesList.com. User reviews on an A through F scale, sometimes based on a limited number of responses, for categories such as availability, punctuality, staff friendliness, and effectiveness of treatment. Requires an annual membership fee ranging from $3.50 to $10, depending on services you select.


Castle Connolly. Ratings of “top doctors” based on peer nominations, research, screening, and other factors. Search by name, location, hospital, specialty, or insurance.


Healthgrades.com. Comprehensive, easy-to-use site that allows searches by name, procedure, specialty, or condition. Includes info on education, affiliated hospitals (and ratings on the hospital itself), sanctions, malpractice claims and board actions, office locations, and insurance plans. Ratings on topics such as patient satisfaction and wait time are based on patient feedback, which can be limited.


National Committee for Quality Assurance. Reliable information on doctors who meet important standards in measures such as being a patient-centered medical home, care for heart disease, diabetes, and back pain. NCQA verifies a doctor’s licensing, but other data is self-reported.


Physician Compare. Information from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for people looking for health care providers who accept Medicare. Provides information on board certification, education, and group and hospital affiliations.


RateMDs.com. Search for doctors by name, sex, ZIP code, state, and specialty. Includes information on training as well as patient ratings on staff, punctuality, helpfulness, and knowledge. It has links to medical board records where you can get information on disciplinary actions. Patients can post questions and answers about doctors. Ratings are based on patient reviews.


Vitals.com. Find doctors by specialty, condition, insurance, name, and more. You’ll get the lowdown on a doctor’s awards, expertise, hospital affiliations, and insurance as well as patient ratings on measures such as bedside manner, follow-up, promptness, accuracy of diagnosis, and average wait time. There’s also a patient-comment section.


U.S. News & World Report. No ratings of doctors, just basic info on a physician’s years in practice, hospital affiliation, training, certification, licensure, insurance, and awards.


Yelp.com. User reviews that give doctors one to five stars. Doctors can’t pay to alter or remove their reviews, though it is hard to tell what the reviewer’s relationship is to the doctor and doctors can get high ratings with just a few responses.


Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
   

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