How to Shop Around for a Healthcare Provider

Dear women - we need a moment of real talk. I’ve recently started shopping around for cars. My own 14-year-old vehicle, fondly known as Babcia (Polish for Grandma), may be on her last wheels. Rather than wait for the inevitable and fly into a panic when she dies, I decided to be proactive and begin to research and test drive cars. I’ve read tons of reviews, read Consumer Reports Car Buying Guide (Used and New Car edition of Summer 2017), sat in over 10 vehicles, and driven about 7 of those 10. All this and I finally feel like I’ve identified a make and model I like.

Coincidentally, I’ve also turned the ripe old age of 26 and have been kicked off of my dad’s health insurance. Whomp whomp whomp. So I need to shop around for a PCP, gyno, dentist, optometrist, and gastroenterologist. So how did I shop around? By asking my friends, coworkers, and Googling. Actually just writing that sentence has physically caused me pain.

Appliances versus Healthcare_LiftLaughKegel

Please let that sink in. Do you feel slightly queasy? Good, you should. Because at this very moment I can pull up the exact specifications to compare two different car makes and models, including their reliability, how likely they are to have issues with everything from the powertrain or the electronics, even with their paint! But what I can’t find as easily are the satisfaction ratings of primary care providers, or the infection rates of two joint replacement surgeons, or the average number of visits it’ll take for my low back pain to go away when I get treated by a physical therapist in Palatka versus a therapist in Miami.

Think about how you selected your last healthcare provider, whoever it was. Maybe you Googled it, or you went to the hospital that has a great reputation, or you went there because your mom and best friend go so it must be OK. Would you buy a pair of shoes because your mom and best friend have them without trying them on? Maybe, but at least you can return them. You know what you can’t return? Subpar medical treatment, or worse, downright malpractice.

I hope that one day we will be able to compare medical providers in this sense. Sure Yelp has some reviews, but you can’t exactly go off of one resource alone. Consider this - as a therapist I see anywhere from 10 to 18 patients in a day and I work 4 days per week, for 50 weeks a year. But if you Google me right now (which I did, just for fun) you will find a slew of links which .

If you actually go to those sites you can find my license number, which allows you to check that I am in fact a licensed provider in Massachusetts. I’m keeping my PT license active in that state, but I haven’t practiced there in over a year. At best you have found out that I’m a physical therapist who has not had any malpractice claims. It doesn’t tell you anything about how I practice, what cases I treat, or more importantly what your outcomes are likely to be if you see me.

In an ideal world, you would be able to search for physical therapists (or any other type of medical provider) and compare multiple factors. For example, wouldn't it be great to know the cost, location, AND what kind of outcomes you might get with a provider? Maybe therapist A is closer to your house, but patients with the same kind of condition who see that therapist report only 50% improvement after 10 visits while the patients who see therapist B (who is a little further away) report 75% improvement in 8 visits. 

I’m sure you heard this story before. Someone you know went to therapy, they loved their therapist but after weeks of going, they had absolutely no change in symptoms or function. If we had a system that tracked outcomes, your friend/family member/YOU would have a better idea that perhaps this therapist wasn't as effective as other therapists. I certainly don't have all the logistics of setting up this kind of system, but having this information would allow YOU to make more informed choices and it would encourage the average or sub par medical providers to step their game up!! So not only would you and your loved ones be getting better care, but we’d also be improving the overall level of care provided.

While outcomes, cost, and location are important factors to consider, those are not the only variables you should rely on. I strongly believe that you and your healthcare providers need to be a TEAM, so it’s crucial to find providers you feel comfortable with. Which is why I recommend you interview your providers each time you need to find a new one.

So what can you do to find good providers? Ask good questions! When you meet a new provider, you should ask more than "How long will it take my ankle/shoulder/cold to get better?" Here is a basic list of questions to ask the next healthcare provider you meet with. I recommend that if you are meeting with a specialist that you add more specific questions. 

1. How long have you been practicing?  

2.What type of training have you had related to ___insert your condition___?

3. How many patients with ___condition___ have you seen?

4. How long do you see them for? What is their level of improvement in that time? 

5. How do you keep up with current research? 

I encourage you to change the questions so that they fit your particular situation. For example, if I was meeting with a surgeon to get a meniscus surgery then I would also want to know: how many of those surgeries they do each year (the more the better -- do not go to the shoulder surgeon for an ankle operation!!), their infection rates, and how they measure improvement. If it’s a primary care provider I’d ask how long they spend with each patient, how easy it is to get back in and see them, and whether they refer to other providers frequently.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include any right or wrong answers to the above questions… It all depends. I’ve only been practicing physical therapy for 2 years -- but one of those years was in an intensive and nationally accredited residency program to become a women’s and pelvic health specialist. When I started out I’m sure glad people gave me a chance because that’s how I keep learning and improving my clinical skills. So you need to weigh the options because the point of this post isn’t to tell you who to pick, it’s to get you thinking about how you pick a provider.

Rarely are people stuck with providers. I've heard time and time again people going back to the same "crappy" doctor, even though they could find a new provider. Yes, it's a hassle, but isn't your health and well-being worth the effort of researching and talking with providers? If nothing else, I hope this post makes you realize that you get to decide who you work with. 

I hope this helps you find a provider you are comfortable with! What do you look for in a healthcare provider? Comment below.