I’m excited to announce that US News and World Report has invited me and some other social-media savvy physicians to participate in a live Twitter chat about how to find a good doctor. The chat will be held on Thursday, March 20th at 2pm EST. You can join the conversation by following the #DoctorFinder hashtag or take the pre-chat poll here.
Most people, including physicians, rely on personal references to find a good doctor. But what do you do when you’re far from home, or you don’t know anyone with firsthand knowledge of local doctors? My parents recently asked me to recommend a physician for them in a state where I knew none of my colleagues personally. This is the 10-step process that I used to help them navigate their way to an excellent specialist – I hope it helps others you find the right doctor as well!
1. Determine what kind of doctor you need. You’d be surprised how many different specialists treat the same symptom – depending on its underlying cause. Take “back pain” for example – should you see a primary care physician, an orthopedist, a neurosurgeon, an anesthesiologist, a rheumatologist, or a rehab specialist to evaluate your symptoms? That depends on the cause of the pain, which might not yet be evident to you. The first step to finding a good physician is to figure out which type is best suited to your potential diagnosis. Bouncing from specialist to specialist can be costly, so if you’re not sure which kind of physician specializes in treating your disease or condition (or if you haven’t been diagnosed yet), start with a primary care physician first.
If you’d like to ask an online physician about your symptoms (or find out which specialist would be the most appropriate for you or your loved one), eDocAmerica.com is my favorite online physician consultant service (note that I answer questions for them.)
2. Compile a list of all the doctors (of the specialty you need) in your area. This list can be generated by your insurance carrier or by an online search of doctor-finder databases such as Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, or US News & World Report’s Doctor Finder directory.
3. Narrow online choices by your preferences (available via Healthgrades.com or Vitals.com databases.) Check out the doctors’:
Years in practice
Types of insurance accepted
Review CV if available (often on affiliated hospital website)
Check out patient reviews (take them with a grain of salt in case they are skewed by an unfairly disgruntled patient)
Make sure they’re accepting new patients
4. Do an online “background check” of your top choices.
5. Make an appointment – consider the following qualities in a good physician experience:
- The team: courteousness of scheduling staff, professionalism of nurses, PA’s, techs, etc.
- Facilities – cleanliness, comfort
- Medical records/communication – how will they provide you your data? EMR? Email?
6. Come prepared
- Bring your list of medications
- Bring a list of your medical and surgical history/conditions
- Bring a list of your allergies
- Bring contact information for your other physicians/providers
- Bring your insurance information
7. Ask the right questions
- How many procedures (like the one I’ll need) have you performed previously?
- What are the risks/benefits of the procedure? Alternatives?
- What should I read to learn more about this?
- If unsure of diagnosis: What else could this be?
- Are there other medicines that are less expensive that we could substitute?
8. Go with your gut
- Did the doctor explain everything clearly?
- Did the doctor seem to care about you?
- Do you trust your doctor to be thorough with follow up?
- Do you like your doctor?
9. Get a second opinion
- If the doctor did not meet your expectations in any significant way, find another one
- If you want to be sure that you’re on the best path, get a second opinion from one of his/her peers or do it online: eDocAmerica (for generalist questions), Best Doctors (to be matched with top national specialists)
10. Reward good doctors with good online recommendations so others can benefit. Physician ratings are only as reliable as the reviewers. Help other patients locate good doctors by promoting those who deserve it.
I am consistently bemused by those who recommend more rigorous or more pervasive standardized testing as the primary means for insuring physician quality. The vast majority of physicians have already passed through a complex gauntlet of multiple choice exams, extended credentialing and certification processes, and lengthy tests of knowledge and skill. And yet, some physicians (to put it bluntly, sorry friends) are very bad at what they do.
Intellectual intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient, for doctoring. It is emotional intelligence (EI) that is sorely lacking – because it has neither been cultivated, nor selected for, by many training programs. Some educators openly acknowledge the problem, pointing to “extra-curricular activities” as their primary means of distinguishing equally qualified applicants. The disappointing reality is that non-academic performance may be a tie-breaker for students with similar standardized test scores, but raw scores almost always trump any other factor. In the end, we have a physician work force that is highly adept at assimilating and regurgitating facts, but is only accidentally good at human interactions.
Is there hope for change in this arena? I believe that the prognosis is guarded. As our culture becomes more and more digital data-driven, a tsunami of “meaningless use” threatens to drown us all in false quality measures, electronic medical record documentation “quality assurance” requirements, and analysis of trends without comprehension of context or influencing variables outside the scope of the measuring instruments. Lies, damn lies, and statistics. We can’t get enough! And guess who are the biggest proponents of these methods? Why, people who only excel at standardized testing – mostly because their true flaws also lie outside the measuring instruments. Bad doctors (sometimes turned-administrators) themselves are often fueling the onslaught of fruitless quality improvement initiatives.
Dr. Howard Luks, orthopedic surgeon and social media activist, wrote a provocative blog post on the subject of why physicians don’t engage more in social media. He suggests that many avoid it because they lack people-skills in the first place and don’t genuinely enjoy engaging with patients. If you’re a “jerk” in real life, he argues, then what advantage is there to making that more obvious on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Better to stay socially quiet.
The interesting thing is that social media might be the most reliable way to discover whether or not your doctor is kind, thoughtful, observant, and detail-oriented. Reading a physician’s thoughts online can help you get to know their true personality and work ethic. In the future it would be nice if medical schools and residency training programs took the time to read applicants’ blogs (for example) instead of crunching their test scores for admission via the path of least resistance. An extra hour of reading up front could save our medical system from a new wave of low EI providers.
As Seth Godin put it, “Uncaring hands are worth avoiding.”
We all recognize the importance of this statement intuitively, but have a hard time quantifying “caring” with standardized tests. That’s why admissions officers and patients alike must use their judgment when selecting doctors. We pay verbal homage to the importance of “clinical judgment” in medicine but in reality are culturally afraid of straying from numbers to support our decision-making.
How will you know a good doctor? You’ll know him [or her obviously] when you see him. And sometimes you can see him best on social media platforms.
A few caveats of course:
1. Social Media is a sensitive but not specific test. Meaning, you can probably accurately identify caring doctors from their blogs, etc. but if they don’t have one, it doesn’t mean they aren’t good/caring.
2. It may not matter if you find a great doctor online if they’re not in your limited ACA network.
3. Direct primary care is a potentially excellent way to get connected to exceptional doctors. I am a fan of this movement and have been actively involved in a practice in VA. The practices can reduce costs and enhance quality care, though recent caps on Health Savings Accounts (initiated by the Obama administration) have reduced consumer freedom to spend pre-tax income on direct primary care.
I’d like to point out an error I made during a more optimistic time in my online career. Last year on my blog I suggested that physician ratings were “here to stay” so physicians should “embrace the inevitable.” What I hadn’t thought through at the time was the fact that virtually no one would use the ratings tools. I had made a fairly narcissistic assumption: that everyone cared so much about their healthcare experience that they were dying to describe it online.
The truth is that any online tool, portal, social network, or health 2.0 application must deliver a compelling “value proposition” to the user, especially if participation requires any degree of effort. It is human nature to take part in activities that reward us for our time. For example, we may slave over a hot stove because we stand to gain a delicious, satisfying meal in the end; we continue to work at jobs that we dislike because the paycheck makes it worthwhile. But why would a patient fill out a lengthy survey about his or her doctor when there’s no obvious value to them in doing so?
A recent article in Slate (h/t to the ACP Internist) makes a compelling case for why physician-rating sites have such low participation rates as to be fairly useless. The return on investment (time spent filling out a long questionnaire) is extremely low, and is worthwhile to only the most irritated patients. And of course, there is no policing of contributions – physicians can rate themselves into the highest quality rankings by logging in as fictional patients.
So does this mean that there are no worthwhile physician rating tools online? The Slate author would have you believe that there are none. However, I would suggest that Castle Connolly’s America’s Top Doctors list is a reliable, if somewhat limited source. Why? Because teams of staff (who are paid by Castle Connolly) do the heavy-lifting, requiring no effort from patients or online raters. Castle Connolly reviewers first request nominations for physician excellence from within a given specialty and region. Peers nominate others for the honor and then the Castle Connolly staff seek corroborative data from surveys sent to physician peers, hospital administrators, and support staff to ensure that nominated physicians are indeed highly esteemed by many of those with whom they work. In the end, about 10% of physicians are fully vetted and included in the list - and I’d say that the selection process is quite sensitive but not specific. In other words, a physician listed in America’s Top Doctors is likely to be excellent, but many excellent physicians are not captured by the methods.
I spoke to John Connolly in a recent interview about how to find a good physician and you may listen to the podcast here. Locating a good doctor is not too difficult – but finding one that will take your insurance (or still has some slots available for new patients) is another story.