What to Look For
Physicians, like everyone else, come in all varieties of professional excellence and individual temperament. When you engage the services of a physician, you are generally seeking two main qualities: competence and compassion. Almost all other desirable characteristics can be summarized by those two qualities.
The relative importance of those qualities varies depending on your needs. If you are seeking a specialist from whom you primarily want technical expertise, you might tolerate poor communication and long waits in the office. However, when selecting a primary-care physician or OB-GYN, or even a pediatrician for your new baby, you might focus on the doctor's compassion. Your primary-care doctor should have enough concern to give counsel and act as a guide and a support. This is particularly helpful when you need specialty care and must navigate the sometimes bewildering maze of clinics, specialists, and preauthorizations.
Cost is also an issue. Some insurance policies contain words and concepts that are difficult for lay people to understand. Terms like health maintenance organizations, co-pay, out-of-plan, and preauthorization may imply restrictions on which doctors you can see, where you can be treated, and how much it will cost you in addition to your monthly insurance premium. You should understand these terms before you need a physician.
Measuring physician competence is difficult even for professional review organizations. Of course, practitioners should be certified. But it is still especially hard for patients to measure their specific physician's competence in treating their particular problem. Unfortunately, there is almost no objective way for a lay person to measure physician competence until after medical services have been received. However, there are a few measures you can take of how competent and up to date a physician is.
Ask what others have experienced with a particular doctor. This is a subjective measure but still the best for most people. What is the general reputation of your potential physician and those who practice in the same group with him or her? You can always find a few patients or parents who were dissatisfied, but if you never find any positive comments, beware. Some insurance plans have patient satisfaction survey data that can help you quantify the happiness (or lack thereof) with various medical groups within the medical plan.