How can you tell if your doctor is any good?

Finding a “good” doctor may not be as difficult as you think.

I read of an interesting, non-scientific poll taken a few years back. People were asked what they thought about doctors in general. A surprising number gave negative answers. Doctors were too busy, were not responsive to their needs, were into it for the money, did not listen to them, and so on. They were then asked about their own doctor and almost without exception, all said their doctor was great. This got me thinking. What makes a great doctor? Below is my list of attributes of the best doctors.

• They care.

Someone once said, tongue-in-cheek, “Sincerity is key. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” All kidding aside, great doctors care about their patients and it shows. They go the extra mile, whether it is by letting patients know they are running late or taking the extra time at a visit if necessary. Caring doctors instill those attributes in their staff, who reflect that caring nature when dealing with patients. Most patients have a good sense of when a doctor is going through the motions or really cares.

• They listen.

Most medical conditions can be diagnosed simply by taking a good history. A doctor who continually interrupts or is distracted can miss cues that might lead to a correct diagnosis or proper course of treatment. Part of the art of medicine is learning to take a good history. In some cases, it means just listening to patients. In others, the doctor can help lead the patient by asking open-ended questions and then sitting back and letting the patient answer.

• They are focused on you during the visit.

The single biggest complaint I hear from patients is their doctor is typing on a computer throughout the visit. Part of this is the fault of electronic medical records, which require time-consuming entry of data into computers. There is a new category of health worker called the medical “scribe” whose job is to enter data on the computer while the doctor focuses on the patient. You deserve eye contact from your doctor and his or her full attention.

• They talk to you in plain English.

Good communication is essential in the doctor-patient interaction. Many doctors tend to lapse into what I call “doctor speak” in which they explain things using medical terms that no lay person is likely to understand. If your doctor will not, or cannot, explain your diagnosis and treatment in terms you understand, you might want to find another doctor.

• They are stable.

Every doctor is new in town at first. Over time, however, they become a fixture in the community. Some doctors do not seem to ever set down roots in a community, or they are all over the place with offices here, there, and everywhere. Stability usually means the doctor practices good medicine because reputations are made over long periods, not a few short years.

• They tend to run on time.

Yes, I know, better than most that a doctor’s schedule is subject to sudden changes—emergencies, patients who are more complicated than anticipated, and innumerable other causes of delay. However, there is no excuse for being chronically late. It means the doctor is a poor time manager, trying to cram too many patients into the working day, or simply doesn’t care that patients are made to wait. When the inevitable delays do occur, patients must be informed so they can decide whether to wait or reschedule.

• They follow their own advice.

I almost omitted this one because it is going to upset a lot of doctors. Ideally, the doctor who tells you to lose weight should not be overweight or obese. The doctor who tells you to stop smoking should not reek of tobacco. The doctor who tells you to exercise more should not be soft and flabby. On the other hand, just because a doctor does not follow their own advice, this does not mean the advice, or the doctor, is no good. Doctors are human, too. Even good ones can have the same failings as their patients. I feel, though, that it makes it easier for patients to comply and follow through if they see that their doctors practice what they preach.

• They have a good reputation in the community.

Word of mouth is one of the best sources of information about a doctor. People are pretty sharp. Over time, the good doctors become known and recommended by their patients. If you hear a lot of good things about a doctor, chances are they truly will be a good doctor.

You will notice I have not included online reviews in the above. Online reviews are useful but have significant shortcomings. They are anonymous, so anyone can claim anything without worrying about being held accountable. I have seen scathing reviews of doctors I know are very good. Some offices have their staff post glowing reviews as though they were patients. I view the internet like the wild, wild west; go ahead and visit it, but do so cautiously and know that it can be a dangerous place.

About the author

Rick Bosshardt, M.D., FACS

Richard Bosshardt, M.D., graduated from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1978. He founded Bosshardt & Marzek Plastic Surgery Associates, Lake County’s first practice to provide full-time cosmetic and reconstructive plastic surgery services, in 1989.

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