A good doctor is someone who will journey with you to help you overcome your ailments. They don’t have to be a specialist or be the most brilliant doctor in existence. They just need to have the perseverance to stick with you, learn with you, and never stop trying to help you. Those who have had bad experiences with doctors might doubt any good doctors exist, but fortunately they do!
Insurance focused clinics
One hurdle to finding a good doctor is that the typical primary and specialist clinics don’t facilitate positive doctor-patient relations. These clinics are focused on the medical insurance side, not on their patients. A typical experience for each visit includes filling out an intake form, waiting 15 minutes to have a nurse then escort you through a number of unnecessary checks including weight and blood pressure, as if these had drastically changed from the last time. Finally, you get to see the doctor to actually discuss your condition, often for as little as 5 minutes but sometimes up to 10! Then you’re shoved out the door with a generic prescription for something that probably won’t do much. If you’re lucky the prescribed remedy will at least minimize your symptoms; unlucky and it will make you sick. Why is this the typical medical system? Because each distinct ‘step’ taken in an office setting can be billed to insurance. The useless weight measurement? You pay for that. You pay for having your intake form typed up and relayed to the doctor. The whole process is just an elaborate way to nickle and dime the insurance company into paying more. What the insurance company doesn’t pay gets forwarded on to you.
How can good doctors possibly survive in such a place? They see one patient after another, hardly getting to look at what you wrote down in the intake form, much less actually listening to anything you have to say. The doctors aren’t encouraged to research your case in depth. Frustratingly, there is little incentive for the doctors to help you. After all, listening to patients and researching aren’t things insurance can be billed for. If the doctor thinks you have a condition that falls outside their specialty, they’ll typically forward you on to another doctor. Often patients either get shunted around from one doctor to another, each time re-explaining their case, or the patient ends up with multiple doctors, none of whom are communicating with each other! Again, doctor to doctor communication isn’t something the clinic can add to the bill.
Patient focused clinics
So where are the good doctors? While I’m sure some exist in the confines of these insurance-minded clinics, they are rare and must go above and beyond what’s required to fulfill the needs of each of their many patients. A better bet is to look at clinics that fall farther outside mainstream medicine. For example, the clinic that helped me was a naturopathic clinic. The naturopathic approach is on full body health, believing symptoms are interrelated and should be addressed as a whole instead of individually. They also prefer to prescribe natural medication and supplements when possible.
One of the most important things to look for in a clinic is how much time a patient is provided with their doctor each visit. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your doctor is if you only get to talk to them for 5 minutes. The clinic I went to guaranteed an hour of time for new patients. During subsequent visits I often consulted with my doctor for half an hour, sometimes more. I never got kicked out the door. Each visit ended because everything that needed to be discussed had been covered. This clinic also never performed any of the typical boilerplate tests and there were no nurses; my entire visit was spent with my doctor. The one “catch” is that these clinics need to make ends meet too. They either tend to charge a reasonably priced flat monthly fee while you are a patient or they bill insurance differently, generally by coding each doctor visit as a more expensive ‘long doctor visit’. My doctor switched clinics while I was a patient to be closer to where she lived and I followed her to the new clinic, so I saw both models in action. The naturopathic clinic pricing was actually very comparable to that of an insurance-minded clinic, and probably a lot cheaper when you consider all the expensive testing advised by the standard clinics.
Another concern people might have about small clinics is: how good are the facilities? Do they really have the technology and labs on-site required to pinpoint your troubles? Well, no, but they don’t need to. There are tons of independent labs specializing in all kinds of tests today. The doctor can take a blood sample, ship it off, and get an extensive blood workup back in a couple weeks. Realistically, many larger clinics outsource their lab work as well. If it turns out you really do need a specialist (perhaps you have cancer or need surgery), your (hopefully good) doctor can help you find the expertise needed for that situation and will still continue to support and aid you with your other health needs.
What to look for in a doctor
Now that I’ve compared the two types of clinics and illustrated why good doctors are more likely to be found outside the mainstream medical field, what should you actually look for in a good doctor?
- The doctor should work with you on your health issues from start to finish. Specialists are generally NOT who you want as your primary doctor.
- Your doctor should order general tests like blood workups to check overall health and then more specific tests as warranted, not the other way around. Bad doctors tend to order miscellaneous expensive tests that are like shots in the dark.
- Make sure you are comfortable talking to your doctor about ALL symptoms, no matter how trivial or embarrassing they seem. If your doctor makes you uncomfortable, find someone else.
- You and your doctor should be cooperating on solving your particular health issues, you should not feel like you are fighting your doctor.
- Your doctor should be able to admit when he/she doesn’t know something. Don’t expect that doctors know everything; they don’t!
- A good doctor will do research to learn more about how to help your specific case.
- Your doctor should go over test results with you, and will preferably also give you a copy to take home!
How to be a good patient
Finding a good doctor is not the end of the story. You also need to be an active participant in fixing your health! Good communication with your doctor will let them help you as much as possible. Write down all your symptoms and what you notice. Don’t expect to be able to remember it all when you visit the clinic. Give your doctor as much information to work off of as possible. You are THE ONLY PERSON who really knows how you are feeling! The better you can explain your situation to your doctor, the better they can understand. Don’t discount your intuition; it might not always be right but it is a good guide. Explain your suspicions and thoughts to your doctor. Even if you are wrong, it still tells your doctor more of the story and how you feel about things. Don’t lie to your doctor or tell them half-truths, this can lead to misdiagnosis or delay the process of understanding your condition.
You and your doctor need to work together on treatment plans. If you are uncomfortable with an option, say so! Your doctor can customize your treatment to fit your needs. It does you no good if your doctor prescribes a treatment plan you won’t follow or medication you won’t take. Similarly, if you were unable to follow a treatment plan, inform your doctor. They aren’t going to judge you, things happen. Together, your doctor can work with you to create a plan that better fits your lifestyle.
A poorly communicating patient-doctor team leads to a frustrated patient unable to communicate their pain and a doctor unable to make a diagnosis. The patient knows the symptoms of their condition better than anyone else. The doctor has the knowledge to translate those symptoms into their various implications. The easiest way to solve an illness is by having the patient and doctor work together to solve the problem.