12 Attributes of a Dependable Doctor
by Jack H. Olender, Esq.
This article has been published in the Community News, The Metro Herald, The Senior Beacon, Washington Afro-American, Washington Jewish Week, The Washington Informer, The Washington Sun, and other periodicals.
A good doctor is a cornerstone of good health. A negligent one, on the other hand, is a prescription for disaster. I know from my thirty years' experience as a malpractice lawyer that most medical mistakes are committed by a relatively small number of physicians who, despite their shocking records and the harm they have caused, are nevertheless permitted to practice medicine. To reduce your risk of becoming a malpractice victim, and to get the best quality health care, look for a physician with the following qualifications:
1. Board certification. Each specialty in medicine grants certificates to physicians who meet reasonably stringent training standards and have passed necessary examinations. To determine whether a doctor is board certified, consult a medical directory or ask for the doctor's curriculum vitae.
2. Good reviews. Recommendations from trusted friends or family members are likely to get you better results than relying exclusively on the phone book, newspaper ads, or the medical society. If you have a medical problem outside the expertise of your doctor, ask the doctor for a recommendation.
3. A Clean Record. No doctor is perfect, but try to find one who hasn't left a trail of blood, tears and misery in his wake. To find out if a particular doctor is a serious or "repeat offender," check the following resources:
- State medical board. Ask whether the doctor in question has ever been disciplined for negligence or unethical behavior. If the answer is yes, obtain relevant details.
- Courts. Court records, most of which are available to the public, can tell you whether a particular doctor has been sued and, if so, how often. I recently won a case for a client against an ear-nose-and-throat doctor who damaged her brain while operating on her ear. When I reviewed court records, I learned the doctor had been sued at least eight other times.
- Doctor directory. Washington-based consumer watchdog group, Public Citizen, publishes statewide directories of physicians who recently have been cited for incompetence, negligence, sexual abuse, or substance abuse. For a directory of the questionable doctors in your state, send a check for $19 to Public Citizen, Publications Office, 1600 20th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009.
4. Hospital affiliation. In order to be affiliated with a hospital, a doctor must meet certain professional standards set by that institution. Affiliation with a good hospital increases the likelihood that you will get better care.
5. Experience. Look for physicians who have a broad and deep knowledge of your particular medical condition. If you are considering surgery, ask how often the surgeon has done the procedure. The more times the surgeon has performed the operation, the greater the chances it will be done expertly. Find out the hospital's success rate for your type of surgery. Compare the rate with that of other hospitals.
6. A bedside manner. Competence is more than just technical knowledge. A truly competent physician is attentive to patients and treats each one with respect and without bias of any kind. If your doctor is rude or treats you in a perfunctory or rushed manner, consider looking elsewhere for medical care.
7. Order and cleanliness. A doctor's appearance and the physical condition of the doctor's office provide important clues to kind of care you will receive. A dirty, disorganized office may signal trouble. Case in point: A former client of mine went to a podiatrist for a minor operation on an ingrown toenail. The podiatrist's office was filthy. There were nail clippings on the floor, the counter, and the tray with surgical instruments. Nonetheless, the young man allowed the doctor to cut into his toe. An ensuing infection was misdiagnosed by his doctor. Within a month, his leg had to be amputated.
8. Timeliness. Are you seen promptly when you go to the doctor's office, or do you often spend an unreasonably long time in the waiting room? Chronic lateness often masks other problems that could compromise your care.
9. Confidentiality. Doctors are required to keep patients' medical records confidential. If other patients' medical reports are open or scattered on the desk for you to observe, it is likely that your records also will be displayed for other patients to see. The physician you select should care about your privacy as much as you do.
10. A good team. Are the staff polite or disrespectful? Efficient or sloppy? The physician's character, values and priorities are usually mirrored by his or her staff. In other words: Like staff, like doctor. Notice who's not in the office. If your physician's staff does not include a nurse or a physician's assistant, seek medical help elsewhere.
11. Honesty. If bills sent to you or your insurance company appear to be inflated, and you do not get a satisfactory accounting from your doctor, consider terminating your relationship. It is unwise to trust your health to someone untrustworthy.
12. Sobriety. As with the rest of humanity, some doctors - between five and 15 percent according to some government studies - abuse alcohol or drugs. Dilated pupils, slurred speech, or the smell of alcohol on the breath are warning signals that your doctor may not be in a condition to competently serve you.
We each have only one life to live. A competent, caring doctor can improve and possibly save your life. The search for such a doctor is well worth the effort.
Washington malpractice lawyer Jack H. Olender was elected Lawyer of the Year by the D.C. Bar Association, and Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Trial Lawyers Association, D.C. He has prosecuted to a verdict or settlement more than ninety cases upwards of a million dollars each.
Copyright 1996, Jack H. Olender