In old movies, bad doctors are easily identifiable – their offices are typically sleazy and their disheveled appearance is often furtive. These traits of a bad doctor may not be as noticeable in real life, however.
Thanks to the improved medical education curriculum and oversight, today’s doctors are highly educated professionals with solid credentials. “The differences between good and bad are more subtle, more personal, harder to detect but just as critical for you,” says George LeMaitre, a surgeon and author of How to Choose a Good Doctor.
Laurel Schultz, a pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area, claims that doctors who are seen as “bad” may be overworked, bored, or burned out – or a combination of the three. It is also possible that they do not enjoy their profession. “Their eyes are glazed over,” says Schultz. “They’ve lost their intellectual curiosity. They really don’t care, and it shows.”
Jennifer Shu, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and an Atlanta-based pediatrician, encourages patients to trust their instincts. “Go with your gut reaction. If you don’t feel good about a physician, go somewhere else. Remember that your best friend’s doctor may not be right for you and your family.”
If you have doubts about your or your child’s doctor, here are seven key things to consider before making a judgement.
An indifferent or uncaring attitude
It is important to remember that while you don’t need to be best friends with your doctor, you want one who is at least personable. Try to avoid doctors who are condescending or have no recollection of your issues from previous visits.
Although seemingly obvious, it is appropriate to note that medical degrees, marketing campaigns, and a fancy address may overshadow the fact that a doctor’s professional performance is not up to par. As surgeon LeMaitre points out, “caring and curing cannot be separated.”
While watching the pediatrician interact with your child, take the time to notice if he or she makes an effort to comfort your child. We all know that going to the doctor as a child is scary, so the interaction between the pediatrician and the doctor can make a big impact.
It is comforting for children if the doctor gets down to their level in order to explain what is going on and why it is happening. Expressing genuine caring and interest in the child is important. Experience and recommendations aside, if your child’s doctor does not pay attention to your child’s fears, or they spend most of the appointment ignoring the child while talking to you, consider looking for someone who is more compassionate.
Doesn’t listen, unresponsive
It is crucial for doctors to listen to patients and be open to concerns and feedback.
It is important to be humble, says ob-gyn William Barth Jr., chief of the maternal-fetal medicine division at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Barth also chairs the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ committee on obstetrics practice.)
“As a patient, if I go to a doctor who says, ‘I know what to do, this is the only way to do it, and you should just listen to me,’ I’ll be out the door in 30 seconds. I want someone who takes a considered and open-minded approach, not someone who is dogmatic and overconfident,” Barth says.
Good doctors take time out of their busy schedules to answer any questions from their patients. It is not a good sign if the patient feels like their questions or concerns are not important or stupid.
Patients should expect everyone in the doctor’s office, from the receptionist to the nurses, to be courteous and responsive. This means that if a doctor is not able to return a phone call in a reasonable amount of time, an advice nurse should make contact with the patient to address any concerns.
Lack of knowledge
Give second thoughts to your doctor if they do not seem to be knowledgeable about cutting edge technology or medical breakthroughs. Medical literature should be followed closely by doctors in order to be able to educate patients about their health. Doctors should be able to explain the results of medical tests, keep patients informed about drugs prescribed, and provide nutrition and other health advice.
Don’t expect an answer to every problem or a complete diagnosis at each appointment. It is within reason, however, to expect your doctor to find the answers and get back to you.
If it seems like there are a lot of errors made by either the doctor or their staff, it may be a good idea to find another provider. When there is miscommunication throughout the office or wrong tests are ordered, this can be a bad sign. Although everyone makes mistakes, repeated oversights or routine sloppiness could mean that your doctor is likely to make a significant mistake that could affect your health.
Make sure your doctor has good reviews. Do some research online to see if anyone has made negative comments about this doctor that continue to pop up and create a theme.
Word of mouth is a powerful way to find the right (or wrong) doctor. Trusted existing primary physicians who know the doctor are a great place to start. Online research of consumer review websites of physicians is a good idea as well. Reading others’ opinions can help you know that you have found the right doctor to trust.
Your state medical board has information on major offenses committed by physicians in your state. Visit the Federation for State Medical Boards website to get the contact information for your state’s medical board.
Always pushes further tests and procedures
A doctor should recommend additional tests or procedures if they’re warranted, but do not let this happen all the time.
Some doctors are excessively cautious, says Schultz, the Bay Area pediatrician. “It may mean they don’t trust their own judgment,” she says. “If your child has pneumonia and the doctor orders a chest X-ray, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t happen every time you come in.”
If you second guess if a procedure is necessary, get another opinion. Consider it to be a red flag is your doctor does not agree with your desire to obtain a second opinion, says Barth, the ob-gyn.
“When I was a brand-new doctor, I think I was a little defensive when my patients told me they were seeking a second opinion, but now I welcome it. It means the patient is thinking clearly about his or her medical care, which is a good thing,” he says.
Disrespectful of your time
Don’t expect to wait more than about 20 minutes to see a doctor. An hour wait is completely unreasonable. “There will be emergencies, of course, but if you routinely wait an hour or more, I’d look around for a new doctor,” says Shu, the Atlanta pediatrician.
If you are new to a medical practice, try calling the office a few times to see how long you have to wait on hold before you are able to get answers to your questions.
Tip: Schedule appointments in the morning to avoid a long wait time. If possible, avoid scheduling routine checkups in the winter, because this is the height of the cold and flu season.
Spotty credentials and affiliations
Most physicians are board certified. While this may not guarantee competence, it is an important seal of approval. Unless a doctor has just graduated from medical school and has yet to take the board exams, not having a board certification is a warning sign that something’s not right.
It is important that your doctor is affiliated with a hospital that has a good reputation. This information can be found online.
Shu doesn’t think that where a doctor received his or her medical diploma should carry a lot of weight, however. “If a person graduated from medical school and passed his or her medical board exams, I think those are good enough screening tools,” she says.
While education and credentials are vital, Schultz says, don’t ignore personal characteristics that may be difficult to measure: “The kind of doctor you are has more to do with your curiosity and compassion as an individual than anything else.”