By Ross Walker

During a recent radio interview, I was asked the very good question, “How do you pick a good doctor?” Although it is a very good question, it is actually quite difficult to answer. With the increasing availability of information on the Internet and of course, the ubiquitous "Dr Google", the services provided by the medical profession are becoming increasingly under the microscope. I remember when I was growing up many years ago, most doctors had an almost Godlike presence, not to be questioned, only revered.

With the increasing availability of information from many sources including the Internet and all aspects of media, intelligent members of the community are starting to question many of the services available. There is no doubt that, in many situations, the computer offers quicker and more accurate information then does the so-called expert in the area. So, back to our initial question: How do you pick a good doctor?

Firstly, this is where I believe the Internet does not give you the answer. There are an increasing number of websites available which critique doctors. But, the problem with these websites and many other sources of information is who is inputting the data. Typically, because of pre-selection bias, any comments about doctors are not critiques, but rather criticisms. It is human nature that you’re more likely to complain about bad service and make this public rather than to promote and proclaim good service when you receive it. The negative emotions created by a bad interaction tend to have a more profound and long-lasting effects than any “feel good” moments when you receive good service. Thus, Internet comments about doctors are probably more skewed to negativity rather than positivity.

Secondly, the selection of a doctor is also based around the service required. Many common, easy-to-treat conditions are handled very well by your local general practitioner. I believe the best way to pick a good general practitioner is to ask your friends, family and people who live in your area who have also availed themselves of the services of the doctor in question. Then, it’s really up to your experience. Were you satisfied with the consultation? Were your questions adequately answered? Did the doctor listen to your symptoms and take adequate time to elicit a good history? Were you examined? Was your blood pressure checked? Have you had a satisfactory outcome, and have your symptoms and problems been resolved?

When it comes to specialist services, this is a somewhat different matter. I am a cardiologist and come from the category of doctor known as specialist or consultant physicians. Consultant physicians are diagnosticians and have a deep understanding of therapeutics i.e. the nonsurgical treatments available to treat conditions. One of the greatest skills of a good physician is the ability to take a thorough and accurate history from the patient, which involves listening to the person’s story and looking for clues as to the diagnosis and then to formulate an appropriate management program. Again, asking the questions in previous paragraph are appropriate to know whether you have received a good service from the doctor. Again, to find a good specialist in this area does involve asking your general practitioner, and also any other friends, family, or acquaintances who have seen that specialist previously.

Finally, how do you pick a good surgeon? This is certainly not a sweeping generalisation, but many surgeons do not have the same people skills seen with good general practitioners or consultant physicians, but the technical skills may be second to none and when you are in an operation, this is really of paramount importance. If you are having major surgery and there is time, it certainly doesn’t hurt to obtain a second opinion. A good surgeon is not just technically brilliant, but also knows when and when not to operate. It is still my opinion the surgeon should have excellent communication skills and explain carefully to the patient exactly what he or she intends to do, what are the potential benefits of the procedure and also, of course, potential complications. Again, picking the right surgeon involves asking your general practitioner, any friends you may have in the medical profession and, of course, any people you know who have availed themselves of this person’s service in the past.

In the 21st-century, it's important that each individual realises that they are the driver and doctors, in reality, should be advisers and servants. If you do not feel this is the case for you, then find another doctor. A number of years ago I made podcast series titled “It’s your body, ask the right questions”. It’s my opinion that nothing is more true than this statement.