When I mentioned that I was writing an article about finding a new doctor to a friend, he promptly told me about his worst physician experience. After searching ZocDoc, he picked the closest, highest-rated doctor — which meant next to nothing. The woman who photocopied his driver’s license also took his EKG, the nurse extracting his blood pricked him eight times and asked him if he ever drank water (what?), and then his urine sample was lobbed onto a cart before promptly rolling off. All-in-all, the doctor spent five minutes with him, and he never heard back about his results.
No doubt you’ve heard plenty of healthcare horror stories from friends and loved ones, or even encountered a few yourself — misdiagnosed diseases, botched procedures, or overlooked injuries are some all-to-common complaints from those seeking health care. For your sake and your families, you want to choose a local physician that is attentive, knowledgeable, and understanding.
Choosing a qualified doctor on your insurance plan, who you get along with and is in-tune with your specific needs can be frustrating and confusing. Here’s how to do the right research — and ask the right questions — so you can locate a physician that will aid in all aspects of your overall wellness.
Starting your search
Your first instinct may be to firer up Google and click on one of those “guides to doctors” websites. Don’t. Most experts agree that you should not turn to any of them for finding a physician. These sites are usually not vetted in any way. The consensus among experts is that you should ask those you trust (and whose values and expectations match yours) for recommendations.
“Make a list of providers based on referrals — ask friends and family, or anyone you know within the healthcare industry, to share their provider,” says Sana Goldberg, RN, BSN, author of How to Be a Patient. “Ask what they like about their provider, what makes them stand out, how accessible/available they are, what they specialize in — even in primary care there can be special focuses or interests that may be pertinent.”
After you source a few good references and make a shortlist, head to your insurance’s online portal to see if they’re in your network. “It’s more helpful to search that way rather than starting with a wider net,” says Goldberg, who notes that these lists aren’t always accurate or up-to-date. For that reason, it may be better to pick up the phone.
“You can call your insurance company and ask for referrals to ensure that your prospective doctor can meet your needs,” explains Janette Nesheiwat, MD, medical director at CityMD in the New York City area. “For example, if you have heart disease, you want to make sure your doctor has experience treating heart disease or is a cardiologist. Or say you have a history of diabetes. You’ll want to make sure that they’ll know how to manage diabetes and help you adhere to American Diabetes Association guidelines.”
And if you are on Medicaid, don’t panic, says Ada Stewart, MD, FAARP, a family physician with Cooperative Health in Columbia, S.C., and president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians: “Most insurance plans, including Medicaid, have a network of providers. Individuals should contact their insurer to see if a particular physician is in their network.”
Don’t forget to vet
Once you have some promising picks who are on your plan, you can now turn to the internet for some initial vetting. First, you can check the Federation of State Medical Boards. Once you enter your prospective doctor’s name, the FSMB will provide you with info like their current certifications, education, where they are licensed to practice, and, most importantly, if they have any malpractice suits or disciplinary actions against them. Turn your browser to your state’s physician licensing board to verify that the doctor is allowed to practice in your state and see what board certifications they have.
To further vet your prospective doctor’s certifications, go to trusted sites like the American Board of Medical Specialties, which has a robust and reasonably comprehensive search tool. (However, they do require you to register and create a login before beginning your research.) Other solid choices for vetting board certifications include the American Board of Physician Specialties and the American Osteopathic Association.
These sites can tell you, besides what certifications they have and possible actions against the doctor, how old they are, how long they’ve been at their current practice, and what hospitals (if any) they affiliate with. The last point is especially crucial if you have a specific hospital that you prefer. Some also will allow you to check up on continuing medical education (CME) requirements for your state and if the doctor you’re vetting has been adhering to them.
Look for industry links
Check to see what research or scientific studies your prospective doc is involved in by simply searching for that physician’s name in Google with “research” or “studies” or “publications” after it. Or go to sites like PubMed and Clinical Trials, which provide access to millions of research papers. If your doctor’s name does pop up, explore the studies that they co-authored to see if they are funded drug or medical equipment companies. Involvement by companies in the studies may mean the doctor is also being paid by them, which could lead to them giving you recommendations for drugs or procedures that may not be in your best interest.
Goldberg also recommends checking the independent, nonprofit journalism portal ProPublica. They have a specific page called “Dollars for Docs” with a search tool to highlight whether your future physician has been paid by any pharma or medical device companies. Another useful resource is Open Payments, a site where you can find whether a doctor has received any payment above $10 from a pharmaceutical company.
And to vet a hospital or group practices, check out the American Medical Student Association. “AMSA ranks institutions as a whole, not just providers,” Goldberg says. “It’s called the Just Medicine campaign and is run by residents.” There you can find links and info about the push to keep the medical industry influence out of patient care.
Finding the physician for you
The next step is to meet the doctor you’ve spent hours virtually stalking (learning about) to see if he or she is a good fit with your (and your family’s) personalities, expectations, and needs.
You can call them up and ask for a meet and greet to spend around 15 minutes talking to them. (This meet-and-greet is usually not billed, says Goldberg, but is not always an option.)
“Noticing how comfortable you feel around the doctor and how easily you feel you can communicate is important,” Goldberg says. “Some people you just have better chemistry with than others, and if you feel intimidated by someone, you’re not going to be as likely to bring up medical issues. You need to get to a point where you like talking to the doctor.” Stewart agrees, saying that clear communication should be your doctor is the number one priority.
Another thing to note is the person’s attitude who answers the phone at your prospective doctor’s office. “If you call an office and the front desk staff is rude or not very helpful then it can give you a little sense of what that office is going to be like,” says Stewart. “How are they, are they welcoming? Are they accepting? Do they ask the right questions? Are all of your needs matched?”
What to look for
First of all, says Goldberg, you want to find a physician willing to explain their thinking to you. “I think it’s a good trait when a doctor offers to walk you through what they’re thinking rather than just giving an answer.”
They should have a sense of curiosity in getting to the bottom of something, she says. Research shows that when someone, especially in medicine and nursing, is too quick to conclude or is super-confident about their decision, they may more easily shut out other possibilities. This myopic approach to treatment could lead to harmful outcomes or a neglected diagnosis.
The ability to know their limits is another critical aspect to be on the lookout for, says Goldberg. “When someone admits that something is beyond their wheelhouse, or their capability, or even beyond their time constraints, that’s a good thing because you want somebody who can be upfront with you.”
Nowadays, more and more people are exploring alternative or complementary medicine and using techniques and treatments that were not always well tolerated by the mainstream medical community. If you are interested in trying other medical modalities outside of the traditional Western medicine, be sure to inquire about the doctor’s comfort with the topic. Make sure they are familiar with how some drugs may react to supplements or herbs, and ask if they would be able to refer you to other types of treatments like acupuncture or meditation.
And if you have budget concerns, make sure to look for health centers in your area, says Goldberg. “Many cities have community health clinics that take patients on a sliding scale or at no cost.” The federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) funds community-based and patient-directed health centers in areas that typically are limited in access to high-quality health care. You can search for one close to you here.
Test the time limits
Ask about accessibility. What contact can you have with doctors or nurses if you have a health emergency on the weekend? How would you reach them? Not all offices offer that type of availability, but some practices allow for more direct access, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Additionally, it’s good to ask how much time the doctor can spend with you during an appointment. Some folks like to get in and out, spending a little time as possible in the office, while others may prefer to spend a while discussing issues and outcomes — it varies on the patient.
“My patients may have a longer wait because I talk to everybody who comes in, I don’t just rush patients through,” says Stewart. “Everyone who comes in is going to get the same amount of time.”
On the flip, see if the office has a quick service option, as sometimes you don’t necessarily need a full-fledged appointment. “Ask, ‘If I needed a renewed prescription or if I just had a question and I didn’t need to come in, how could I go about doing that?” says Goldberg.
How clued-in to technology is the office? Do they have a patient portal and access to telehealth? As access to the digital world — in all industries — becomes more and more and more ubiquitous, it’s something you should inquire about at your first appointment. Ask about access to a patient portal, a way to converse with the doctor live like on Zoom, access to payments and billing, electronic medical records, and specific apps to make the whole experience more seamless.
And finally, if you’re a woman, a person of color, or part of certain ethnic groups, you may have specific concerns about whether the doctor can deal competently with any issues that may arise that are unique to your life. During the first few calls to the office, you should ask if interpreter services are available or if the practice can provide care to a particular patient population. Stewart also suggests just checking out the waiting room — what type of individuals are in there? Do they match the diversity that makes you feel most comfortable? Does the office feel inclusive and welcoming to all?
The bottom line
Above all, making sure your relationship with your doctor is positive and trusting is the main goal you should be looking for in a new doctor, says Nesheiwat. “Having a healthcare provider you trust and feel comfortable with allows for better communication, improved compliance, and better outcomes with medical conditions.” And she says to remember that it’s OK if you don’t feel like your doctor, new or not, is the right fit for you, after the first visit or 10 years in — you can always find another one.