Interviewing Prospective Doctors

by Alan Greene, MD, FAAP

doctor with babyThere was a time when the first question one would ask when looking for a doctor was, "Who is the doctor in the nearest town?" For most people who have the ability to access this Web Site, that is no longer the case. Now, unfortunately, the first question most people ask is, "Does the best doctor in town accept my insurance?" If he or she does, you are in luck. After I discuss how to determine who the "best doctor in town" for you is, I'll give you some hints on how to become his or her patient, even if that doctor doesn't take your insurance.

One of the best ways to identify great doctors is to ask nurses in that field whom they would recommend. Nurses see both the professional and the human sides of doctors. They see firsthand how physicians handle medical crises, and how they interact with people. If I were moving to a town where I didn't know which pediatricians were great, I would call or drop by a labor and delivery unit, a newborn nursery, or a pediatric ward at a local hospital and ask several nurses for their opinions.

When considering a doctor, you want to think about four things:

  1. Is he or she a well-trained physician who stays current with medical trends?
  2. Does she or he practice medicine in a way that agrees with your philosophy of healthcare?
  3. Does the Practice he or she is affiliated with fit your practical needs?
  4. Will you feel comfortable asking this doctor any health-related questions that might arise?

Determining a physician's qualifications is fairly simple and a great place to start. If a doctor does not meet your standards, you can easily eliminate him or her as a candidate and move on. Here are some questions you can ask that will help you determine her or his qualifications:

  • Where did he or she complete undergraduate school?
  • Did she or he receive honors?
  • What medical school did he or she attend?
  • Where did she or he complete Residency?
  • Did he or she serve as a Chief Resident? (If so, he or she was the top of the class and judged to be good with people.)
  • Is she or he Board Certified? (All physicians are licensed, but not all are certified.)
  • What is he or she doing to continue training? (The AMA gives a "Physician's Recognition Award" to those in practice who actively pursue continuing education.)

While many excellent doctors didn't complete their educations at top-ranked schools, finding out their stories is worthwhile. You may want to ask each one why he or she chose a particular medical school and a particular field of medicine. Probe about the methods used to stay current with rapidly expanding medical knowledge. How she or he handles these questions will give you a lot of information.

The second major factor in determining the right physician for you is much more subjective. It requires you to determine the kind of physician you are looking for. Do you want a doctor who works with you to determine the best course for your healthcare, or are you more comfortable with a physician who simply tells you what to do? Do you prefer a minimalist approach to medicine, or do you want medical intervention whenever it may be appropriate? Are you excited about alternative medicine, or are you more comfortable with traditional Western medical practices?

After you have answered these questions for yourself, you will be able to tailor the following questions to draw out the information you are looking for:

  • Does he or she provide patient education?
  • Does she or he give you treatment options?
  • What is his or her approach to the use of antibiotics? Does she or he prescribe antibiotics for the common cold?
  • Is he or she open to discussing alternative treatments, such as diet?

The practical aspects of a practice may not be important in determining if you want to select a physician, but they are very important in determining if she or he will be able to serve the needs of your family: