When choosing a physician, such as a surgeon, radiation oncologist or a medical oncologist, no one source gives a perfect measure of quality. However, combining information from the sources listed below can help you make an informed decision.
Many large hospitals and health insurance plans have directories to help you choose a physician. These directories are a good starting point because they often list physicians by medical specialty and gender. They may also have personal biographies, which list education, training, certification and personal interests.
Physician directories are often available from your employer's human resource department. They can also be found on many hospital and health plan websites.
One of the best ways to find a good health care provider is a referral from a trusted source. People often get the names of qualified providers from their primary care physicians, family members, friends or other breast cancer survivors.
Making sure a physician is board certified is an important step in finding a good provider. To be board certified, a physician must have the training and knowledge to practice a medical specialty and have passed a certification exam.
The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) oversees the certification of specialists. The ABMS online directory allows you to verify a physician's certification. Many physicians post their ABMS certificates in their offices.
The American Medical Association maintains DoctorFinder, a database of physicians in the United States. DoctorFinder lists a physician's certification status and has information on where the physician went to medical school and did his/her training.
Malpractice records can be a sign of the quality of care a physician provides. If a physician or his/her malpractice insurance company has made malpractice payouts, he/she may not offer the best quality care possible. However, this is not always true. Physicians may be sued for malpractice when, in fact, they did nothing wrong. Therefore, in some cases, malpractice suits may not reflect the skill of the physician.
State medical boards often have malpractice records available to consumers. Many states, including California, Florida and New York, have this information online, either through their state sites or through directories like DocFinder. Malpractice records are not always available. However, these sites are a good starting point for a search.
Interviewing a physician about his/her approach to treating breast cancer is a good way to learn about his/her abilities. This may be done as part of a formal consultation. Here are some things to consider while interviewing a physician.
Breast cancer experience
Keep in mind that a physician who sees only people with breast cancer is likely to be more experienced at treating breast cancer than one who treats a variety of cancers. Outside of large medical centers, however, it can be hard to find physicians (such as surgeons,medical oncologists and radiation oncologists) who treat only people with breast cancer. If you choose a physician who does not specialize in breast cancer, he/she should still treat many people with breast cancer each year. Many of these physicians give excellent care to people with breast cancer.
Questions for your potential provider
Here are some questions you can ask when interviewing a physician:
- How long have you been practicing?
- Do you only see people diagnosed with breast cancer?
- How many breast cancer cases do you see or operate on in a year?
- What breast cancer treatment guidelines do you follow? (Learn more about treatment guidelines.)
Find more questions to ask a potential provider.
Clinical trial access
You should ask whether a physician takes part in clinical trials. A physician who does is likely to know about new therapies and may be more open to future medical treatments. However, the ability to take part in clinical trials can depend on the type of hospital where a physician practices. Many community hospitals do not conduct clinical trials, but this does not mean physicians on their staff are not up-to-date on the latest treatments.
Finally, an interview lets you assess a physician's personality and communication skills. This is a chance to see whether you feel you can connect with the physician. For many people, a physician must be someone they feel comfortable with on a personal level. Physicians should be open to your questioning their recommendations, asking for more explanation when needed and getting a second opinion.
Although they are imperfect guides, many local and national magazines have issues listing the "best" hospitals and physicians. These types of listings can be good guides, but keep in mind excellent care is also provided by many physicians and hospitals not listed in these reports.