Diabetes Forecast

Finding the Right Doctor

How to pick a great physician—and get the most out of your visit

By Tracey Neithercott ,

No one goes to the doctor for fun. There's always a wait. The examination rooms are cold and bare. The flimsy paper gowns are mortifying. When you add wrestling with insurance to the mix, a simple office visit can seem like an ordeal. All that, and the typical appointment lasts only 10 minutes, which can feel like hardly enough time to even begin to discuss your health.

Fed up yet? Well, the doctors are, too: Cramming dozens of appointments into a single day is frustrating enough, but when your doc isn't rushing between exam rooms, he or she is on the phone with insurance companies to make sure patients get the tests and medications they need.

While some of the things that make doctors' visits frantic are out of your hands, others are up to you. We've tapped experts from across the country to help you choose a doctor, plan for a visit, and make sure all of your health questions get answered.

1. Find a Doc

Picking a doctor isn't as easy, of course, as opening the phone book and calling the first office you see. "This is a person you have to get along with," says Ruthann Russo, PhD, JD, MPH, RHIT, author of 7 Steps to Your Best Possible Healthcare: The Essential Guide for Crafting Your Personal Healthcare Plan. "The relationship between you and the physician, whether you think you can trust them, is really important."

By doing some research before booking an appointment, you can increase your chances of finding The One. For starters, all doctors should be board certified. You can find one who has received certification by visiting the American Board of Medical Specialties' website, www.abms.org. Next, make sure your primary care physician has special training in diabetes. "Be sure that the physician [you're] going to see not only has experience in treating diabetes . . . but has experience treating diabetes with comprehensive care," says Martin Solomon, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and medical director at Brigham and Women's Primary Care of Brookline. He suggests picking a general practitioner who works in a diabetes care clinic or the diabetes treatment unit of a major medical center since they most likely offer diabetes and nutrition education. Don't live close enough to a medical center? Call a center elsewhere for a referral to a doctor in your town.

You should also consider a doctor's hospital affiliation, says Marie Savard, MD, an internist, women's health expert, and author of How to Save Your Own Life. A doctor who is affiliated with a top hospital in your area can take care of you during your stay or refer you to colleagues in another specialty. Also to consider: whether the medical practice accepts your insurance, how close the office is to your home or workplace, and the doctor's gender (if it matters to you).

If you're concerned about finding a personable doctor, ask around. Friends, family, and coworkers can tell you whether theirs is more Dr. Welby than Dr. House. Rotary Clubs and diabetes support groups may also have members willing to share their experiences. But keep in mind, says Solomon, that while patients may be good judges of a doctor's personality, they don't always know if they're getting subpar care.

While you need to do your research, there are a few facts you can disregard. You can forget about physician-rating sites. According to Russo, there is no way for patients to know if the reviews are written by the doctor's office staff, real and representative patients, or a disgruntled few. And don't spend too much time worrying about which medical school a doctor attended; the interaction you have with your doc is often more important. "I know people at excellent institutions who are bad doctors," says Andrew Drexler, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Gonda Diabetes Center at the University of California­­­–Los Angeles.

2. Prepare for the Visit

If you're showing up to your appointment empty-handed, you're probably not getting the most out of your 10-minute visit. Your prep work should start when you book your appointment. Ask how long a typical meeting with your primary care physician lasts (physicals last longer than follow-up appointments), then state your plans right away. "Don't say, 'I want to come in for a cold,' and think, 'I'll have him do this, too, and kill two birds with one stone,' " says Savard. "Be comfortable right up front and say, 'I have three big things,' or go for that physical." If you hope to get a vaccination, mention it when you book. The office will need to make sure the vaccine is in stock.

When you switch to a new doctor, be sure to transfer your previous medical records. And if you've seen other specialists or had tests done since your last appointment, make sure those results are forwarded to your primary care physician before your visit. "Don't assume they'll automatically make their way there," says Russo.

Our experts' top tip: Make a list and check it twice. Jot down all of the medications you take, their dosages, and why you take them. Then pass the list to your doctor at the start of your visit. "Your list is potentially the most up-to-date thing you have," says Savard. "The second-best thing is to throw [all your meds] in a bag to take to your doctor."

You should also bring your blood glucose log (ideally, written down or printed out—your doc probably won't have time to scroll through the memory on your meter) and a list of three or four questions you hope to have answered during the visit. "A lot of times, patients will have questions come up [between visits]. Jot those questions down," says Fred Williams, MD, FACP, FACE, an endocrinologist at Endocrine and Diabetes Associates in Louisville, Ky. "If any of them haven't been answered before you see the physician, bring them with you."

3. Use the Time Wisely

A short appointment may not be long enough to answer all of your health questions, but it should be plenty of time to cover your top three worries. "Show your agenda right up front," says Savard.

If at any point during the appointment you feel confused, say so. "You want to make sure that [your question has] been answered to your satisfaction," says Williams. "If the physician doesn't answer with something that makes sense, then keep asking until it does make sense." Another option: bringing a "medical mentor" who can take notes and make sure you're hearing everything the doctor says. "When you're sick, you're vulnerable. You're not going to be yourself, and you're not going to be thinking about everything," Russo says. But, she cautions, "you've got to be careful who you pick [as your companion]. You don't want somebody who's also going to be emotional."

It's essential that you be honest and open with your doctor—even if that means risking embarrassment. Fibbing about sexual issues, drug use, whether you take your medications regularly, or how many hours you exercise each week can hinder the treatment your doctor is providing. Too often, says Savard, "If you don't ask, they don't tell. And if you don't tell something, they won't ask."

Lastly, before your visit is over, make sure you know your next move, whether it's to get a prescription filled, visit a diabetes educator, or start an exercise plan. Make sure your doc is clear on what steps you should take outside the office. Though a doctor's appointment is over quickly, your care and management are lifelong. "There's a difference between diabetes and most diseases," says Drexler. "There are probably very few diseases where the patient makes as many decisions as the doctor."

For More . . .

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