The “doctor” treatment: How to vet physicians for ourselves and those we love

There’s an old Dutch Proverb that goes: “We grow too soon old and too late smart.”

I’m not so sure about the “too late” part. In the almost five years since I walked off the mound for the last time, i.e., I retired from practicing medicine, I’ve learned a lot and maybe even gotten a tad smarter (about some things). I can change my refrigerator water filters with my eyes closed, to cite one highly notable example. As Canadian comedy icon Red Green would say, if the world no longer finds me handsome, it can at least find me handy.

Choosing who we trust

Another skill I’ve honed lately is the ability to identify and choose good physicians for myself and my relatives when we need care. This is a way bigger deal than it sounds, I’ve found out.

If you’re, like me, a retired physician or you’re approaching retirement, you’ll probably increasingly find yourself on the consumer side of medical care—either personally or for loved ones. One of the perks, if you will, of our long and illustrious careers, is having the knowledge and the contacts needed to expertly navigate the health care system when searching for a doctor.

Plus, we’re surprisingly savvy at navigating the trackless wastes of the health care bureaucracy and doing the same for those close to us. We’re able to leap over defensive receptionists with a single bound; we’re more than a match for a voicemail menu, and we’re faster than a speeding EMR—not to mention more powerful than a patient portal. We mention (casually or otherwise) that we are Doctor So and So calling and we can talk to who we need to in the time it takes a hot knife to cut butter.

This is effective with our former colleagues and also with newly selected physicians alike. There remains, for now, a genteel collegiality among physicians—most of them, anyway. If you retired from your practice and institution in good standing and without too much interpersonal collateral damage, you left with a bonus that is likely now priceless.

Hopefully, you’ll never need to use it. Statistically, however, you probably will. And when the time comes for you or a loved one, you’ll be glad it’s there. But use your access as a key, not a battering ram. You were on the other side of that door once.

It’s all about who you know

For former trusted colleagues, it’s easy. You know them; you know their skills and their level of commitment to care. Their partners may be a different story. It is certainly fair to ask, say, if you’re having a surgical procedure, who will be seeing you post-op or long-term? Not all doctors are created equal. And there are some who, sad to say, I still would not let touch me.

If you’ve relocated or are exploring care for out-of-town families, the internet search is a godsend. Click on a location, then on a practice, find the “Our Team” or “Our Doctors” section, and settle in for a while.

So often, I found, you can tease out a connection—tenuous perhaps, but a connection nonetheless with a practitioner. You trained in the same city, or at the same hospital or health system, or you practiced with/know some of the same people who taught or trained there. Once you start looking, the degrees of separation tend to shrink rather surprisingly. You can check out training histories, practice interests, etc. It beats the heck out of throwing a dart blindfolded, right?

You can also reach out to trusted colleagues on behalf of a loved one or friend. Not in the heavy-handed “Can you see them this afternoon?” way, but in the “I know you’re busy, but I would really appreciate it if—” way. This is not influence peddling or even insider trading—where I grew up in New Jersey, this would fall under the “I might know a guy/gal …” way of getting things done. It’s also fair game to reach out and ask, “Who would YOU recommend?”

Is it always a perfect match? No. But it seems to work well enough to give it the old college try. And if a former colleague is miffed that you didn’t ask them to treat you or your family—well, it ain’t your problem; it’s theirs. The time for office politics has passed.

Many of us have built up a lifetime of clinical knowledge and, more importantly, a lifetime of trusted contacts and mostly unburned bridges. They’re there to be used—not exploited—to get yourself or someone you care about the best treatment possible. As I’ve mentioned before, my own medical rap sheet is pretty well-checkered, so I have had to choose on numerous occasions. And, as a Grail-guarding medieval knight from an Indiana Jones film might say, “I have chosen … wisely.” You will, too.

The gift of trust

If you’re a physician who’s not in retirement, you will likely sometimes be on the receiving end of these requests from your retired peers.

When that call comes from a colleague about care for themselves or their family, never underestimate the weight of respect that comes along with it. Don’t say you’re too busy (even if you are); don’t say you’ll see if one of your younger partners has time in their schedule; don’t act annoyed. They want you—and whether you realize it or not, you’re being given a rare and precious gift that not everyone gets or deserves: unblinkered trust.

And if you’re not the person for the job (sometimes I knew I was not), be honest and recommend who is and offer to make the call yourself. You’re immortal and bulletproof now, but someday you’ll be on the other end of the line. Most times, it’ll just be a simple question, maybe some general advice or a non-binding curbside consult. Sometimes it will be something much more serious. It’s all gold; try to remember—just differently-sized nuggets. Treat it that way.

In a book I published decades ago titled A Heart Surgeon’s Little Instruction Book, I included a “nugget” that got way more notice than I expected. Paraphrased slightly, it read: “Advice is the currency exchanged by physicians.”

There are no Crypto, FTX, or NFTs here—but it is a very valuable tender nonetheless. Receive it graciously. There will come a time when you will need to spend it … wisely.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Daniel J. Waters is a cardiothoracic surgeon. This article originally appeared in The DO.


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