The minimum requirements for a physician are medical school, an internship and residency in an area of specialization, such as primary care. Some physicians go on to complete a fellowship, which is another period of specialized medical training or research.
“In addition to education, a physician’s certifications, professional experience and areas of interest can provide valuable insight into his or her expertise,” says Marie Lee, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside. “If you have a specific interest, such as women’s health, consider finding a physician who shares that interest.”
You may find it helpful to ask about the following:
- Board certification
Board certification indicates that a physician has gone beyond basic licensing and met national standards for education, knowledge, experience and skills in a specific medical specialty. Studies have shown that board-certified physicians provide higher quality care and have better patient care outcomes.
- Teaching or lecturing at universities or medical schools
Many experienced physicians serve as adjunct faculty or guest speakers at schools and medical conferences.
- Special areas of expertise
A primary care physician may have an interest in complementary therapies, such as acupuncture. A gynecologist may specialize in treating infertility or menopause.
- Participation in research studies or clinical trials
This may indicate that the physician is involved in the development of new and advanced treatments.
“It’s important to consider what will happen if you need surgery or care at a hospital in both inpatient and outpatient situations,” says Dr. Lee. “You want to have as much faith in the staff caring for you in the hospital as you do in your physician.”
Make sure your doctor admits patients to a hospital, clinic or surgery center that has undergone a rigorous on-site evaluation and meets established quality and safety standards, such as that provided by The Joint Commission. Also, verify that your insurance plan covers care at those facilities.
The way your physician communicates with you can make the difference between a positive relationship or a frustrating one.
Some physicians tell patients exactly what to do, such as which medication to take, rather than discussing options with them. This is welcomed by patients who want the doctor to make all decisions about their care.
Others offer several options and make a recommendation. For example, “You can reduce the sodium in your diet or take medication to control your blood pressure. I would recommend the medication.”
Still others explain all treatment options, discuss the pros and cons of each, and leave the final decision up to the patient.
“The best fit depends on how involved the patient wants to be with his or her own care decisions, and how open the doctor is to the patient’s participation in those decisions,” says Dr. Lee. “Ideally, you want to find a good match.”
Ask how accessible the physician is. Most physicians have access to an online patient portal to communicate with their patients. Online health portals make it easy to ask questions and clarify any issues that came up in an office visit.
In the case of a sudden illness or injury, are last-minute appointments available? Some physicians will have another member of the care team — such as a physician assistant or nurse practitioner — accessible to handle such cases.
“Knowing what to expect from a new physician can help build a stronger relationship, which can lead to higher satisfaction on both sides,” says Dr. Lee.
Also, find out who covers for the doctor after office hours. If there is no on-call physician, research your other options, which may include urgent, walk-in or emergency care. In addition, virtual care may be available after hours, such as a symptom checker, e-visit or video visit.