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An apple a day doesn’t always keep the doctor away – choosing a doctor that’s right for you

Posted in Health, and Women's issues

Rembrandt's anatomy lesson - kind of glad I was born 400 years later
Rembrandt’s anatomy lesson – kind of glad I was born 400 years later

My life, right now, is an endless string of dentists’ appointments. I have the misfortune of having to do some extensive dental work and, a couple of months ago, my wonderful (and drop dead gorgeous lady) dentist referred me to Dr. G for a specialist consult. I might be biassed but I am close to the perfect patient: I never miss appointments, I show up on time, I ask questions, I am not scared but. But I always interview my doctors.

So far, I have been lucky in the health department but I have had my small share of incompetent or just careless practitioners , like the famed Santa Monica allergist who, after extensive testing, declared that the cause of my severe hives was pheasant. It took all my restraint not to punch him in the face. From then on, I have had a habit of always investigating my doctors prior to the first appointment.

Whether you are the type who googles every sniffle or doesn’t go to the doctor for years on end, chances are we all reserve some of our reverence for the medical profession and, without any medical knowledge, who are we to argue with a doctor?

Hopefully not the smile I will end up with
Hopefully not the smile I will end up with

It took me some time to realize it’s beneficial to do some advance research when I “shop” for a new doctor or specialist, as I would with mundane purchases like a car or a software update.  Like most interpersonal relationships, the one between doctor and patient has intangible components. Medical knowledge alone is not enough to make it work. In the case of Dr G, who came highly recommended and with solid patient reviews, everything felt so wrong I got up and left mid-appointment, leaving the nurse rather speechless. One of the benefits of growing old: doing what you think is right, even if it might be upsetting to other people, becomes easier.

I trained myself to be more inquisitive and more disciplined when it comes to choosing a health practitioner. Easier to get into the habit when my health is still good so it will be second nature the moment something serious hits. Here is my basic checklist:

  1. Start with some research. We can sit in front of a laptop for hours comparing prices and options for a vehicle yet we are more likely to investigate a plumber than a doctor. Yelp and other patients’ reviews are helpful but they will only get you so far. Different people look for different things but a string of less than stellar reviews might be an indication that something is amiss. More importantly, is this doctor attending conferences and seminars in his/her field? Does he/she author papers? Is he/she known for any particular procedures in his/her field of expertise? All sure signs of a doctor not set in his/her ways, and most of this information can be gathered on-line.
  2. Make sure you are clear on what you are looking for. Last year, when searching for a new ob-gyn, I was given quite a few referrals. Many of them specialized in fertility. While being a whiz at delivering babies by no means disqualifies a doctor from treating a 50-year-old woman, I would rather pick someone whose area of interest is menopause. My baby window has been closed for years.
  3. Office environment. Sometimes I wonder if doctors think carefully about the people they hire  – the front office gives you a bird’s eye view on who the docs are. When I walk into a warm and welcoming waiting room, with the person behind the desk smiling and helpful and not perpetually on the phone asking patients to “please hold”, I know their boss has put some thought into their training. I have a penchant for extremely detailed oriented docs.
  4. First impressions count. The energy shifts when we walk into a room and some personalities just click. Notice if your doctor is greeting you warmly, makes eye contact – does his attention immediately shift on you, the patient, and stays there for the rest of the appointment? Not out of ego-centrism, but I would like for my doctor  to be concentrated on my problems and not wondering about the next five patients sitting outside.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even dumb ones. Does your doctor reply enthusiastically and at length? Or does she treat you like an irritant? Are her answers exhaustive? Does she volunteer more information? Does she steer you towards the most expensive treatments? Or the most experimental? If so, why?
  6. Be clear. I am the kind of patient who thrives on excessive knowledge. I want to know everything. But you might be different. Say what you think you need to say – what you are looking for, any concerns you might have – from cost to insurance questions, your fears. Nothing is too ridiculous. If you are in need of medical treatment, you tend to be the weaker party and any good doctor should be sensitive to that.
  7. Be a responsible patient. Show up on time. Don’t cancel appointments at the last-minute unless you have a very valid reason. Like in all relationships, feel free to say what works for you and what doesn’t. Even good doctors are not mind readers.

Above all, I try to remember that my health is my responsibility and I can’t expect a doctor to just fix it for me without my willing participation. At the same time, I never want to feel as if I don’t know what I am talking about just because I don’t have a medical degree. I certainly do know my body better than anyone else.

Alaskan witch doctor
Alaskan witch doctor

Finally,  I want to participate in the decision-making process because no one is going to be more invested in the outcome than me. While I count on my doctors to make decisions on my behalf based on their training and knowledge, I also expect them to look for my input when different options are available.

In the end, Dr. G was replaced by Dr. D who walked in and chatted amiably to put it me at ease. He examined me gently and suggested two different courses of actions which I will discuss with my primary dentist.  I didn’t feel forced to go with the most expensive option out of the bat. He walked me out and briefed the front desk on what was next while I was still there before moving on to the next patient.

That Dr. D happens to be Italian, charming and rather cute had, nothing, I swear, nothing to do with my liking him.


All photos found in the public domain

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  1. Haha! Sure, the fact that he was Italian and cute had nothing to do with it. I haven’t had many problems with doctors that I can recall, but I have had problems with their staff. Some are inept, some are obnoxious and shouldn’t be working with patients, they should be working in a lab! I am in the process of looking for a dentist AND a new doctor. Dentists are a dime a dozen here; doctors are scarce and waiting lists for new patients can be as far away and February of 2014! It’s a good thing I’m healthy! Your post reminds me of the time I lived in California and was pregnant and the doctors went on strike! Thank God it didn’t last long
    P.S. Wait’ll you get on Medicare. What a pain in the *ss that is!

    September 8, 2013
    • I heard about Medicare (but I am still in the denial phase!). Good luck with the dentist. Finding a good one is actually hard to do.

      September 8, 2013
  2. silvia

    Another important point I’d recommend out of personal experience is whenever possible never make a decision under stress or when emotionally off balance.

    August 27, 2013
  3. Oh my giddy aunt!
    In China I avoid doctors if I can – though when I had 4 strokes in two weeks (way back in 2010) that wasn’t an option – but here in the UK I get what I get, and so far my treatment has always been superb. Doctors and specialists I am able to communicate with, who listen to me and refer me to others if necessary. And with them has come some ‘cutting edge’ treatment, many questions answered, much reassurance and peace of mind…..and that extends to me idiotically breaking my collarbone in two places a few weeks back, with all the concommitant X-Rays, Orthopedic surgeons, physiotherapists, etc etc. Best of all, no money changed hands, no-body asked for my insurance or credit card details. God Bless th NHS!

    August 19, 2013
    • As I was writing the post, I was pretty sure non American readers would have a hard time relating. In Italy, we have a paternalistic view of medicine, with the family doctor still coming to your house when you are sick and a system that pretty much mirrors the NHS. Depending on where you live, care can be pretty spectacular, all at 0 cost. Compared to the US, English hospitals look positively Victorian but I would trade them any day. Even if you are a proud owner of an insurance card, wading through the system is a job. Medicine, here, is a business proposition. A study was released today stating that doctors who have a stake in radiation equipment are more prone to prescribing radiation treatment even when it’s not strictly necessary or there are cheaper option. You would think one shouldn’t have to worry about all this at the moment of most vulnerability like dealing with illness!

      August 19, 2013

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