The doctor is late. You're half undressed. And no one knows your name. Welcome to healthcare in the 21st century.

Do you sit for 40 minutes in the waiting room, only to be whisked into an examining room by the nurse who tells you to disrobe without an introduction or greeting? When you finally do see the doctor, she spends perhaps 10 minutes with you, without establishing any rapport.

In today's "managed care" environment, physicians are pressured to see as many as five or six patients in an hour, leaving little time for you to ask questions and openly discuss your symptoms and concerns. How do you find a doctor with the best credentials, a good bedside manner and a warm personality? There are many ways to find a physician, but only a few methods will produce the right chemistry.

Finding a New Physician

Your local hospital or community medical center most likely has a physician referral service. Use it. When you call the service, have your questions about the doctor ready. A sample question list may look like this:

  • Is the doctor male or female?
  • How long has the doctor been in practice?
  • Where did the doctor go to medical school?
  • How old is he/she?
  • What are his/her specialties?
  • Is the physician Board certified?
  • What are the physician's areas of interest or research?
  • Is this doctor accepting new patients?
  • Is the doctor willing to meet with me in person to address my questions before I consult him/her about my specific problem?
  • Does the doctor speak Spanish? (or whatever language you may need)
  • Can I reach the doctor after hours?

Word of mouth is usually a good referral source, as well. But remember that your friend's expectations of a physician may not match yours. Meet the doctor yourself, before making any final decisions.

Interview the Doctor

Perhaps the best way to determine if a physician is a good match for you is to book an appointment or consultation to meet him, before addressing your specific health problem(s). Most offices will accommodate your request for an interview and will usually charge you for a brief office visit, depending on how long the meeting takes. Ask about the office fee policy prior to the interview.

During your interview, be aware of your instincts and first reaction when meeting the physician.

  • Does she maintain eye contact with you?
  • Does he fully answer your questions and explain anything that may be unclear?
  • Do you feel rushed or unimportant?
  • What is the physician's general attitude? Is he open to your questions, or do you find yourself trying to justify and explain your requests?

Know Your Medical History

Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (see Resources section), stresses the importance of knowing your medical history: "It is helpful for each woman to get her medical, social, and ]]>family history]]> straight," she says. "Our patients fill out an extensive questionnaire that covers their medical history, their family history, and a 'daily living profile' in which they check off the effects of their living situation, job, relationships, and other factors on their health." Understanding your family history can make an enormous difference when describing your health problems to a physician.

Keep a Copy of Your Medical Records

Your medical records are a written medical "history" that should be continuously updated and maintained by both you and your doctor. If you're switching to a new doctor, get two copies of your records—one set for the new doctor and one set for your own records. Read them thoroughly. Familiarize yourself with the contents and terminology. If the records are not legible, ask the nurses in the physician's practice to interpret them. Invest in a small medical dictionary to help you understand basic medical terminology and abbreviations.

Make sure that you get a complete copy of your records, including the doctor's progress notes. If you have any radiology procedures performed (such as x-rays, mammograms, etc.), it's crucial to get a copy of these reports as well.

Most medical offices have special procedures for releasing medical records. You will probably have to sign a permission form before they release the records to you. You must pick the records up in person, and sometimes there is a small charge for copying and compiling them.

The Office Visit: Your Time

Come to your office visit with a list of your symptoms, the medications you take, any drug allergies and a general idea of when your symptoms began. If the doctor seems rushed or preoccupied, call her on it. I usually say, "You seem busy, and I need more of your time." Make the physician aware of how his actions make you feel.

Insist on speaking to the doctor before you disrobe so that you can meet "face-to-face" in a neutral environment. If your doctor won't honor this request, it's probably a good idea to look elsewhere for a physician. Don't ignore your gut instincts.

Managing Your Healthcare: A Three-step Process

  • 1. Ask . The importance of asking questions cannot be stressed enough. Ask about your treatment options. Get a description of any recommended medical procedure or test, as well as its risks. Ask for pamphlets or literature. Ask the doctor to speak in terms you understand. Find out where the procedure or test will take place. Are you able to take someone with you into the treatment area? Don't be shy. It's your health at stake.
  • 2. Clarify . If you don't understand the treatment recommendation(s), ask for clarification. Get a second opinion. Get a third opinion if you're still wary. Talk to friends who have had similar medical problems. If you think of additional questions after your visit, call the doctor. Leave a message with his assistant or a nurse. Some practices now offer you the option to email your questions or leave questions in voicemail.
  • 3. Evaluate . Do your homework. Utilize the library, Internet and other medical sources to do some research. Books and magazines are incredibly useful tools when researching medical conditions and treatments. I recently found a lump on my breast and was forced to research my options. Using a database on the Internet, I was able to locate the email address of an expert in gynecology. I wrote the physician and her response indicated that I was on the right track with my treatment plan.

Dr. Warren Slack explores the value of using the Internet for healthcare information in his book, Cybermedicine: How Computing Empowers Doctors and Patients for Better Healthcare (see Resources section). While the Internet is not an infallible source of medical information, information culled from the 'Net does provide a basis for patient and doctor to initiate a dialogue.

Don't Settle

Take the time to find a doctor that will meet your healthcare needs. Remember to ask questions about any diagnosis, treatment or medical procedure. If you knew all the answers, you wouldn't need the doctor!