Choosing a doctor

A few years back, while living in South Philadelphia, we decided to change primary physicians. The most surprising thisg we learned is that most people don’t give much thought to the choice.

When we first moved into the neighborhood, we just chose the closest doctor, a guy with a multiple partner practice within walking distance. He was very popular in the neighborhood, it didn’t take long to figure out why. Despite being near impossible to reach by phone to set up appointments, Doctor “A” had a thriving practice. He accepted every insurance plan, and once you were in the office, the wait in the waiting room was short. He used medical students as interns, so his time with the patient involved saying hello and writing prescriptions. He wrote a lot of prescriptions, all you had to do was ask and he would write one for anything.

We were more interested in a doctor that was interested in our health, so we started shopping. We interviewed a few, and most were shocked that we had standards we expected to be met. We expected an office staff sufficient to answer the phone when we called, or at least return a voice message within an hour. That knocked half a dozen practices off the list. We expected the staff to be polite and fluent in English. Scratch off anther three offices. We expected a clean office and waiting room. Another two down. We expected to see a doctor, a person who had graduated from medical school, for examination and diagnosis. The list of practices kept getting shorter.

Finally we got down to interviewing doctors. The shock on their faces when we answered the question “What seems to be the problem today?” with “We’re choosing a doctor, and want to get to know you” was cute at first, but by the time we got to the third candidate it was annoying. You could feel an attitude of “What right do you have to make a decision about my qualifications?”

We made a decision, Doctor “B” was right down the street, and we saw him a couple of times over the next year. The third visit I sat in the examination room waiting for him, and was able to hear every word on both sides of a conversation he was having on the speakerphone in his adjacent office. So much for confidentiality, and I was unimpressed with the way he discussed this other patient’s issues with the other doctor on the phone, making more comments about her personal life than her medical condition. Then he entered the examination room, my file in his hands. He sat down, thumbed through the pages, and said “So how is your diabetes?”

I don’t have diabetes.

I told him I didn’t have diabetes, my issue was multiple sclerosis, and he shook his head and looked closer at the file. Then he turned it right side up. Then he put on his glasses, saying “looks like I need to have my eyes checked again, haha.”

I slowly stood, maintaining eye contact with him and said “You’re fired. Your eyes didn’t get any worse while you were sitting here, so that thumbing through my file was just a show. If I wasn’t clear enough in the beginning when I told you I need a primary physician who would treat me as a person, perhaps you can remember this” and I walked out the door.

We tried our second choice, and kicked ourselves a few times for not making him our first choice.

Doctor “C” had a small storefront office on Broad street, a bit further to walk but there were a couple of different bus or subway choices available. One of his nurses would bring her dog to work, but the dog stayed in the filing room and everything was clean. Doctor “C” turned out to be one of the best doctors I’ve ever dealt with, and I had already dealt with quite a few. A few years later, when Emma developed cancer, doctor “C” went from being a good doctor to being a great doctor, I considered him a genuine friend. When she received the diagnosis, he sat with us, holding our hands, and said “Pray for God to guide your doctors,” he filled in when the specialists she was seeing made mistakes or overlooked details, and made our lives better during the very worst of times.

I realize that anyone with a passing average in medical school can become a doctor. Some doctors will be naturally better than others, some will be friendlier, and the doctor you find will be in your area. We were fortunate to find Dr. “C”, had we simply behaved like sheep and stayed with the first doctor we met our lives would have been worse.

My advice is to make the extra effort, find a doctor you trust, because when you need a superior physician, it is too late to start looking.




One comment on “Choosing a doctor

  1. Mike R says:

    Thanks for discussing this issue and for telling the reader how he can and should hold his prospective physician to standards, something even harder in the current environment. I have been blessed with a physician who has left the mainstream and charges a very reasonable monthly fee to be on his maximum 600 patient caseload. It is a trip back to my childhood with a family doctor that still made urgent house calls and always was reachable by the phone.


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