How to Give Your Doctor a Checkup
You Wear the Stethoscope
by Chandra R. Thomas
Most people spend more time checking around for a reliable car mechanic than they do investigating their doctor. However the controversial death of rapper Kanye West’s mother, Donda, in 2007, has inspired more patients to learn more about their medical care provider well before placing their health in his or her hands—especially before going under the knife. Turns out her surgeon was not board certified in plastic surgery and that she reportedly died from from pre-existing coronary artery disease and “multiple postoperative factors” following cosmetic surgery. There’s a plethora of Web sites available to get information, but many charge fees, yield incomplete results and include public information that, with some time and effort, may be obtained for free. Here are some helpful tips to consider before embarking on a personal fact-finding mission.
WORD OF MOUTH
Begin any doctor search by asking for referrals from friends, family and co-workers. Don’t be afraid to inquire about the positives and negatives. “Family and friends are a great resource,” says Willarda Edwards, M.D., president of the National Medical Association. “Ask a lot of questions about what they experienced, and don’t be afraid to ask for someone who is African American or Hispanic; someone who has an awareness of your cultural medical needs.” The NMA (nmanet.org) and the American Medical Association’s (ama-assn.org) online physician’s locators, she adds, are great options for finding docs. All licensed physicians are listed with the AMA.
START WITH THE BASICS
Google them. While a simple Web search may not necessarily reveal any blemishes on a doctor’s professional record, it is a good start. When doing so, remember there are lots of Dr. Smiths and Dr. Browns, so it is ideal to have the doctor’s first and last name and a middle initial when possible. When in doubt about something discovered in your research, consider calling the office for more information. The good news is that your research may also help locate positive facts—such as published articles, specialized training and faculty assignments—that may make you feel more confident and informed about your doctor choice. An Internet search may also yield helpful information, such as where they attended medical school, completed residency or, adds Dr. Edwards, “whether or not they incorporate alternative care into Western practices.”
Your state medical licensing board maintains a database of licensed physicians and any actions, claims, settlements or adverse proceedings. (Find the Federation of State Medical Boards directory at fsmb.org.) The amount of information available often varies, and, in some cases, there are time limits on how long adverse accounts can be posted. Note that results on some state physician disciplinary Web sites may be outdated. “That’s not a way I recommend someone decide on a doctor, because the information could be very misleading,” Dr. Edwards says. “Some records are not regularly updated and may not list the outcome of any litigation.” In some states, adverse information is exclusively left to be reported by the physician. Malpractice litigation filed under a different name or license number, settled out of court or filed longer than a particular state’s reporting requirement is likely not listed.
Don’t underestimate the value in plain old observation and intuition. While visiting a doctor’s office or during an informational call, pay attention to what you witness firsthand or experience. How does the staff greet you? Are they helpful and respectful? Do they assist with referrals? Does the doctor speak to you in plain language? Are your questions welcomed? All are important components of the doctor-patient relationship. Make it a priority, Dr. Edwards says, to secure a dedicated medical care provider with whom you are comfortable. “You need to establish a medical home that will coordinate your care before an emergency takes place.” Y
Chandra R. Thomas is an Atlanta