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Signs of a bad doctor.
- An indifferent or uncaring attitude
- Doesn't listen, unresponsive
- Lack of knowledge
- Poor recommendations
- Always pushes further tests and procedures
- Not respectful of your time
- Spotty credentials and affiliations
In old movies, bad doctors are easy to identify – they work out of seedy offices and have a furtive, unkempt look. In real life, it's not so obvious.
Thanks to improvements in medical education and oversight, most doctors today are well educated and have solid credentials. "The differences between good and bad are more subtle, more personal, harder to detect but just as critical for you," says George LeMaitre, a surgeon and author of How to Choose a Good Doctor.
San Francisco Bay Area pediatrician Laurel Schultz says so-called "bad" doctors may be overworked, bored, or burned out – or a combination of the three. Or maybe they never liked being a doctor in the first place. "Their eyes are glazed over," says Schultz. "They've lost their intellectual curiosity. They really don't care, and it shows."
Atlanta pediatrician and American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Jennifer Shu encourages patients to trust their instincts. "Go with your gut reaction. If you don't feel good about a physician, go somewhere else. Remember that your best friend's doctor may not be right for you and your family."
Wondering about your child's doctor or your own? Here are seven ways to recognize a bad doctor.
Guide to Firsts: Doctor visit
Prepare for your baby's doctor visit with our handy checklist.
Prepare for your baby's doctor visit with our handy checklist.
An indifferent or uncaring attitude
You're looking for medical care, not a new friend – so a sparkling personality probably isn't a priority when choosing a doctor. But it's smart to steer clear of one who is consistently cold and patronizing or has no memory of you from one visit to the next.
This may sound obvious, but sometimes a prestigious medical degree, fancy address, or marketing campaign conceals the fact that a physician is a lackluster practitioner. As surgeon LeMaitre points out, "caring and curing cannot be separated."
When it comes to your child's doctor, pay attention to how he or she interacts with your child. A visit to the doctor can be a frightening experience, and a caring pediatrician or family doctor will take the time to make your little one feel comfortable.
Look for a doc who gets down to your child's level to explain what's happening and why, and who expresses genuine warmth and interest. No matter how experienced or highly recommended your child's doctor is, if he or she dismisses your child's fears or spends most of the visit talking to you and ignoring your child, consider finding someone else.
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The most highly trained and experienced doctor still needs to listen to his or her patients and be open to their feedback and concerns.
Humility is important, says ob-gyn William Barth Jr., chief of the maternal-fetal medicine division at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Barth also chairs the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' committee on obstetrics practice.)
"As a patient, if I go to a doctor who says, 'I know what to do, this is the only way to do it, and you should just listen to me,' I'll be out the door in 30 seconds. I want someone who takes a considered and open-minded approach, not someone who is dogmatic and overconfident," Barth says.
Most doctors are extremely busy, but a good doctor will still take the time to answer your questions. If you're made to feel that your concerns or questions are foolish or inappropriate, it's a bad sign.
As a patient, you have the right to expect courtesy and responsiveness, not just from your doctor but from everyone in the office – from the receptionist to the advice nurse. The doctor, or someone in the office, should respond to your phone calls in a timely manner.
Lack of knowledge
Consider changing doctors if yours – or your child's – doesn't seem to keep up with the latest medical literature or be aware of medical breakthroughs or other health information. Part of the job is to educate patients about their health. That means explaining the results of medical tests, keeping patients informed about drugs prescribed, and providing nutrition and other health advice.
Don't expect your doctor to be able to respond to all your questions or diagnose every problem on the spot. But it is reasonable to expect your medical provider to find the answers and get back to you.
If you detect a pattern of errors by your doctor or your doctor's staff – the wrong tests are ordered, for example, or messages don't get passed on – find another provider. Everyone makes mistakes, but repeated oversights or routine sloppiness could indicate that your doctor makes bigger blunders as well.
A bad doctor is likely to have a tarnished reputation. You may need to do some detective work to make sure a doctor is up to snuff.
Start by talking to a primary care doctor you trust, as well as friends, relatives, and co-workers who may be familiar with the doc. Check websites that provide consumer reviews of physicians, too. Doing your homework can help reassure you that you've trusted your family's care to the right person.
Your state medical board has information on major infractions committed by physicians in your state. Contact information for your state medical board is available at the Federation for State Medical Boards website.
Always pushes further tests and procedures
A doctor should recommend additional tests or procedures if they're warranted, but be wary if this happens all the time.
In some cases, doctors order additional tests out of an excess of caution, says Schultz, the Bay Area pediatrician. "It may mean they don't trust their own judgment," she says. "If your child has pneumonia and the doctor orders a chest X-ray, that's fine. But it shouldn't happen every time you come in."
If you question the need for a procedure, get a second opinion. And if your doctor objects, consider it a red flag, says Barth, the ob-gyn.
"When I was a brand-new doctor, I think I was a little defensive when my patients told me they were seeking a second opinion, but now I welcome it. It means the patient is thinking clearly about his or her medical care, which is a good thing," he says.
Not respectful of your time
How long should you expect to wait at your doctor's office? A 20-minute wait is reasonable; more than an hour is not.
"There will be emergencies, of course, but if you routinely wait an hour or more, I'd look around for a new doctor," says Shu, the Atlanta pediatrician.
If you're joining a new medical practice, you might want to call the office a few times and see how long you have to wait on hold before you get your questions answered.
Tip: To avoid long waits, schedule your appointments early in the day. If you can, avoid scheduling routine checkups in the winter, during the height of the cold and flu season.
Spotty credentials and affiliations
Most physicians are board certified. This isn't a guarantee of competence, but it is an important seal of approval. Unless a doctor is fresh out of medical school and hasn't taken board exams yet, not being board certified is a warning sign that something's not right.
Avoid doctors who have no hospital affiliation or are affiliated with a hospital that has bad ratings (check online healthcare sites for hospital ratings).
Shu doesn't think that where a doctor received his or her medical diploma should carry a lot of weight, however. "If a person graduated from medical school and passed his or her medical board exams, I think those are good enough screening tools," she says.
While education and credentials are vital, Schultz says, don't ignore personal characteristics that can be hard to measure: "The kind of doctor you are has more to do with your curiosity and compassion as an individual than anything else."