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Doctor Shopping? Here's How to Find the Best Match

Ask the right questions, provide pertinent information and you'll get better care

SUNDAY, Oct. 2, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Changing doctors is an increasingly common fact of American life.

Sometimes, you force the change -- if you switch jobs, or insurance plans, for instance. Other times, the change is forced upon you -- your doctor moves or retires.

Whatever the source, there is a lot you can do to smooth the transition and boost the chances of finding a doctor with whom you can forge a beneficial relationship, experts advise.

Finding a good doctor is good for your health. It increases the chances you'll get quality care and decreases the likelihood that you'll be hospitalized, research shows.

If you're like most people, you'll find a new doctor by first asking around.

"Most people find a doctor by getting a referral from a friend or relative," said Dr. Caroline Rudnick, an assistant clinical professor of family medicine at St. Louis University, and a family physician who often counts as her patients all members of a family. "Usually, they don't know anything about our background when they come to see us."

When doctor-shopping, experts suggest you start by checking your potential doctor's credentials. This is no time to be shy, Rudnick said. She encourages prospective patients to inquire about the doctors' medical training -- where they went to medical school, did their residency.

You should also ask about the scope of their practice. Do the doctors care for patients of all ages? And if you have a chronic condition like diabetes, you should ask if they have a lot of experience dealing with patients with the disease, Rudnick suggested.

"You should also feel free to ask about the mechanics of the practice," said Dr. Mary Frank, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, and a family physician in Rohnert Park, Calif.

For instance, you'll want to know what would happen if you get sick on a weekend, or who would cover for your doctor when he is out of town.

Also, try to determine if your new doctor's philosophy about preventive health meshes with your own, experts advise. Ask about her views on complementary and alternative medicine, if that's important to you.

If you rely on acupuncture, for instance, and your new doctor doesn't see a role for it, you should probably keep looking for a new physician, Frank said.

Once you feel like you've found a good match, you should provide accurate, thorough information about yourself so your new doctor can care for you in the best way possible, Frank and Rudnick said.

Start by covering four topics during your first visit: your medical history, your family history, your lifestyle, and the medications you take.

Knowing which health problems you've had in the past can help your new doctor assess your current health status and be on the lookout for potential problems, Rudnick said.

And learning about your family's medical history can also help your new doctor help you, Rudnick and Frank said. Certain diseases and conditions -- cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, for instance -- often run in families, Rudnick said.

Lifestyle factors can also have an enormous impact on your health and are another great source of information for your new doctor. So tell him if you exercise, if you smoke, if you drink alcohol, and whether you have a pet. Owning a pet, for instance, can mean the difference for some people between being sedentary and getting some exercise.

And instead of telling your new doctor which medications you're on, Rudnick advises that you bring prescription bottles so the physician can examine them. If you can't bring them to an appointment, make a list of the drugs, including dosages, she said.

Staying with the same doctor can also pay health benefits, Frank said. "A trust builds up," she said. "The patient feels comfortable talking to the physician."

And the physician feels comfortable doing a bit of gentle nagging, Frank added. For instance, she said, if she had a patient who smoked, she would encourage him to quit. "And every time I see him, I am going to say, 'What's going on with the smoking?' "

Research suggests that keeping the same physician is good for your health. In a study published last year in the Journal of Family Practice, researchers reviewed the results of 18 studies examining "continuity of care" and patients' outcomes.

They found that those patients who stayed with one doctor had better care, were less likely to be hospitalized or go to the emergency room, and were more satisfied with their care.

More information

To learn more about choosing a doctor, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.

SOURCES: Mary Frank, M.D., family physician, Rohnert Park, Calif., and president, American Academy of Family Physicians; Caroline Rudnick, M.D., Ph.D., family physician, and assistant clinical professor of family medicine, St. Louis University, St. Louis, Mo.
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