When choosing a doctor, you'll need to ask a lot of questions. But not all of those questions should be directed at a prospective physician. In fact, you'll want to ask yourself a handful of questions before you even pick up the phone to call a doctor. Assuming you've done the research on the doctor's credentials and specialties, you're going to want to get answer to questions that have more to do with personal preference and best practices than medical training.
Questions to ask yourself
Is your doctor's age a factor? The years of patient experience accumulated by older physicians can be a significant advantage. Some research suggests that patients tend to prefer the bedside manner of older doctors. A physician with many years of experience may also have better clinical judgment, which could translate into improved ability to diagnose and manage complex health problems. But a study published in a February 2005 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine reported the seemingly counterintuitive finding that, overall, the more experience a physician has, the worse his or her care becomes.
In general, if your priority is someone familiar with current evidenced-based standards of care, you may want to opt for a younger physician. And if you have multiple, complex health problems, or put a premium on bedside manner, you may lean toward an older one.
Male or female? Some research suggests that women prefer getting care from female doctors; that's particularly true for screening tests for breast, cervical, and colon cancer. Other research hints that female physicians may do a better job than male ones in providing basic preventive services to both women and men. So if you're particularly concerned about preventive health care, consider seeing a female doctor-especially if you're a woman yourself.
Are you looking for a collaborative partner or a trusted leader? The caricature of the average primary-care doctor has gradually shifted from the father figure who makes medical decisions for you to a technician who lays out an array of treatment options for you to choose from with hardly a word of guidance.
The reality, of course, is that a good doctor has always been someone whose judgment you trust but who is also willing to take your preferences into account and to admit when the medical evidence is uncertain. And most physicians combine both characteristics, at least to some extent. Still, doctors do tend to lean toward either relying mainly on their professional judgment or using a shared decision-making model that involves actively educating patients and seeking their input.
Questions to ask a potential doctor
How long will I have to wait for an appointment? Look for practices that offer "open-access" scheduling, in which doctors typically leave part of each day's schedule unbooked so they can offer some same-day appointments.
Do they keep paper or electronic medical records? Computer-based record-keeping is considered a major step toward improving the quality and efficiency of medical care. But only about one-quarter of Canadian and U.S. doctors surveyed recently said they currently use electronic records, compared with 8 out of 10 or more in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Do they take questions by e-mail? Though searching for health information is one of the most popular uses of the Internet, less than 10 percent of patients communicate with their doctors by e-mail. That relatively small number may be due, in part, to many doctors' reluctance to hand out their e-mail addresses, for fear both of liability implications and of being overwhelmed by "cyberchondriacs."
E-mail "conversation" is great for non-emergency matters: problems or advice about a chronic disease, an appointment, test results, clarification of some item that came up during an office encounter, an overlooked question, a medication side effect, or any question requiring only a yes or no answer. And it's a direct link to your doctor, without a telephone intermediary such as a nurse or assistant and can supplement your time with you.