Impatient | Helping make the health care system work for you

Looking for a doctor? Word-of-mouth, data both helpful

Sybren Stüvel via Flickr Creative Commons

My friend Sarah Rothbard recently started a new job. That meant switching insurance plans and finding a primary care doctor in her network that she liked.

And that proved to be a challenging task, even though she took a textbook approach to finding a doctor:

"I'm a pretty meticulous planner, so when I plan a vacation, I'll Google it, then I'll ask friends and I'll also go to TripAdvisor," Rothbard, 31, says. "I thought I would do this kind of thing for finding a doctor and it didn't really work out that way."

She eventually selected a doctor based on her research, but after visiting his office, she decided he was not the right fit for her. 

Data "inadequate"

Finding a high-quality primary care doctor that you like and is covered by your insurance is a challenge. That's even true for other doctors, admits Dr. Bob Wachter, professor and interim chairman of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine.

"I think the data that are available to patients to help them make these decisions are really inadequate," Wachter says. He adds that he runs a department of some 700 doctors and "even in my position, I don't have any great way of figuring out who's really good at what they do."

That being said, Wachter says there are some basic things to do when searching for a high-quality doctor:

"There are doctors who have wonderful bedside manner and get terrific reviews and yet are dangerous," Wachter cautions. "And there are other doctors who are a little bit grumpy, who are really terrific technically at surgery or cognitively."

"When you're looking at the online reviews, chances are you're really getting a snapshot into their bedside manner, which is clearly important but not the only thing you care about."

Consumer Reports also offers these tips for finding a doctor.

Sites offer more data

Rothbard and Wachter are not alone in this struggle. In fact, it's spurred the development of at least two companies that aim to empower patients to connect with high quality, in-network doctors that they like and trust.

Through ZocDoc, you can search for a type of doctor, filtered by zip code and your insurance carrier. A list of doctors pops up; you can then click on their individual profiles to get information about their medical education, hospital affiliations, board certifications and which insurance plans they accept. You can also see how other ZocDoc users reviewed the doctor.

Another cool thing about ZocDoc: You can book an appointment with a doctor through the site.

With BetterDoctor, you can search for doctors by specialty and location. Again, a list of doctors pops up; you can check out their individual profiles to learn about their medical education and specialties, as well as patients' Yelp reviews.

The site also integrates data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services regarding how often other physicians refer patients to this particular doctor and how often the doctor performs certain procedures.

I asked Wachter to look at both sites and he liked what he saw. He called the emergence of sites like these a "healthy trend" toward making quality and safety data more accessible to patients.

"Why should it be that I get more information about buying a car or a refrigerator than trying to find a doctor for my cancer or my heart disease," Wachter says. "It's crazy but it's changing very, very quickly."

'Word-of-mouth trumps all'

Back to my friend Sarah Rothbard: Not satisfied with the doctor she had selected, she went back to the drawing board. This time, she got a recommendation from one of her new colleagues.

"When you're overwhelmed, word-of-mouth trumps all," says Rothbard, noting that she hasn't yet visited the new physician. "I think when it comes to finding a doctor, it pretty quickly becomes overwhelming."

I ran this idea by Ari Tulla, co-founder and CEO of BetterDoctor. He says his site provides a sort of second opinion during the doctor search.

"I'm a huge believer of peer recommendations and word of mouth," Tulla says. "I think BetterDoctor and other tools are good at augmenting it."

Have you had trouble finding a doctor or specialist that you like? What strategies have you used to find a doctor? Tell me all about it in the comments section below or e-mail me at