Despite the concerns over physician competency, most patient complaints deal more with bedside manner or style of relating to patients.
We've all heard friends say, or maybe we've said it ourselves, "Technically, he's a very good doctor, but I always feel so rushed," or "My friends all think he's wonderful, but I don't think he takes me seriously."
Once you've checked the doctor's credentials, what's the best way to ensure a good psychological match with your doctor?
A simple first step is to get a copy of the doctor's brochure, if he or she has one.
"Some doctors are extraordinarily frank [in their brochures] about how they practice medicine," says Dr. Frank Claudy, chief of the Department of Family Practice at Maryland General Hospital.
"For example, some doctors may say that the rights of the patient will always be respected, even when they impact other family members, while other doctors maintain that the rights of the family are pre-eminent in some cases."
You may also want to set up an interview with a physician, for which you may or may not be charged. Before the interview, however, take some time to think about how you would like your doctor to approach your health care and prepare some questions.
"Putting myself in the patient's position, I would need to feel confident that my doctor would care enough to listen and that I would feel comfortable talking about very private medical and emotional issues," says Michael Plaut, Ph.D., associate professor Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "I need to trust their confidentiality as well as their competence."
However, says Dr. Plaut, these issues may not be as important with specialists you see once as with your primary care physician, whom you will probably visit periodically over a number of years.
"Most patients want a partnership arrangement for their health care, and most physicians are comfortable with this," says Dr. Claudy.
And patients have more say than they think.
"Once the patient visits the doctor, it becomes a one-way contract because the doctor enters into a covenant to care for the patient," says Dr. Claudy. "The patient has the control to stay or go to another doctor."
If you're in an HMO or PPO, visit the office and ask questions. Most HMO doctors expect patients to come in with critical eyes, expecting to have to shop for a doctor.
At least 25 percent of people are enrolled in HMOs, says Dr. Claudy. And while these people may have more limited choices, most health organizations offer a variety of practitioners.
"A good question to ask is how long the doctor has been with the HMO," Dr. Claudy says. A doctor who has been with the HMO or PPO for a while has probably become accustomed to the regulations and will provide good care. A new participant, however, may get frustrated and drop out of the program, leaving you to find another doctor.
Other things you may want to discuss are how to reach your doctor after hours, office hours and billing questions.
The bottom line is that you need to have an idea of what you want out of your doctor. Once you realize your own expectations and do a little homework, you should have little trouble finding a competent, compatible physician
***For more information:
The Medical-Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland for phone numbers of city and county medical associations, 539-0872.
The Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance, 764-4705.
The American Board of Medical Specialties for information on any specialist, (800) 776-2378.
The American Board of Medical Specialties Compendium of Certified Medical Specialists. Marquis Who's Who Inc., Chicago, Ill. Available at public libraries.