- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

People may change jobs, cars and homes, but few opt to change their primary care physician unless it is unavoidable.

In today's health care market, however, with physicians picking and choosing which health plans they will accept and decline, some seniors are faced with selecting an unfamiliar name off a list as thick as a phone book.

"It's a solemn experience," says Margary Thorpe, 65, of Columbia, Md. "I don't know these doctors… . I honestly don't know what I am going to be getting when I enter their office."

Although she is in good health and doesn't often visit her doctor, Mrs. Thorpe says she does occasionally have an issue she would like to discuss with a caregiver.

Mrs. Thorpe, whose primary care physician retired recently, is faced with the task of choosing a new doctor after being with her previous physician for more than 30 years.

"He was even the doctor for my children," she says. "We knew him. He knew us. I trusted his expertise and his judgment."

As she looks through her insurance company's 20-page list of approved providers, she considers the doctors' office locations. That's about all the information she's getting from the thick document.

The list doesn't explain their specialties, how many years they have been in practice or their patients' satisfaction with their services.

"These are all things I want to know," she says, "And if I pick up the phone and call his office, my chances are actually pretty good that he won't be accepting any new patients."

Although there seems to be a doctor's office on every corner, Mrs. Carla Bodaghi, 62, of Alexandria, says she has been denied appointments several times because doctors are too busy to accept new patients.

"It's really hard to find a doctor who is really, really good," she says. "They already have more patients than they can handle."

Mrs. Bodaghi, whose internist retired after caring for her health for more than 20 years, hasn't found a physician who fits the bill. She has been looking for about eight years.

"I want someone who will coordinate my care and take an active interest in my well-being," she says. "I find most doctors don't take the time to find out your medical history before they diagnose a problem. I want a doctor who will sit down with me and really discuss with me the problem I am having, get to the root of it and see that it doesn't reoccur."

Health care specialists say a patient should try to schedule a lengthy first visit with a new doctor. Questions a potential patient should be ready to ask include: How do you plan to keep me healthy? What do you routinely check for? Are you available by phone at night or on weekends? Who covers for you when you are unavailable?

After the initial visit, it is important to consider how long you had to wait to see the doctor, whether your questions were answered to your satisfaction and whether a complete medical history was requested.

Mrs. Bodaghi has used her computer to type up a medical history that she updates periodically. She prints it out to take with her when she visits a doctor.

"Most offices don't seem to have the staffs to properly research the medical history of a patient," she says. "I find it does usually help the caregiver to have the information he needs."

Mrs. Bodaghi and Mrs. Thorpe agree that the burden to make informed decisions about doctors rests on the individual. Though a family practice may be fine for some people, those seniors who want to see the same face each time they visit the doctor may not want to register at a larger practice.

"It seems that we are overly saturated with doctors," Mrs. Thorpe says, "but the fact remains that it is hard to find the one doctor who is the perfect fit for your needs."

Although shopping around seems to be one of the best ways to find a physician who will fulfill an individual's health needs, many seniors ask friends and acquaintances for references. According to AARP and WebMD, for some seniors, finding that a doctor is involved in their church or senior center is a reference that speaks volumes.

Making phone calls to medical agencies also can be helpful if one really wants to get the scoop on the doctor's track record.

For instance, one can check to see if a doctor has a malpractice record by contacting some states' Boards of Registered Medicine. Also, Medi-Net will search a doctor's background files and give a prospective patient a report that includes the physician's education, board certification, licensing and any disciplinary action taken against the doctor. The fee is $15.

The bottom line, though, is that most good doctors are found simply by trial and error.

"It's a hard thing to find a good, caring doctor who will not only listen to you, but will listen without looking at his watch every five minutes," Mrs. Thorpe says. "But once you find one, it's the beginning of a wonderful relationship."

More information

On line

• The AARP Web site (aarp.com) offers helpful tips for choosing doctors in and out of Medicare. The site also gives suggestions for health maintenance.

• Doctors' education and training can be looked up on the American Medical Association's Web site (www.ama-assn.org) has a "doctor finder" button that enables consumers to choose from a list of doctors who currently are licensed in the United States.

• The American Board of Medical Specialties also has a Web site (www.abms.org) where visitors can check to make sure a doctor is indeed specialized in the field he is claiming.

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