By Michael Hanak, MD
As a primary care physician working at a renowned institution, it is tempting to perceive myself as a “good doctor.” I greet patients with a smile, I strive to provide treatments that are in line with the latest medical advances, and I do my best to explain medical problems in a way that is easy to understand.
But when a family member asked me what to look for in a great doctor, I found myself suddenly at a loss for words. With so many well-meaning physicians (after all, helping people is why we went into medicine in the first place), what are the things that make a physician extraordinary?
As I began thinking about this, I quickly jumped to the conclusion so many doctors jump to when they hear the words “patient satisfaction.” Sometimes we as doctors are put in situations where a patient asks for a treatment that we know is not effective. Do we say yes and risk the patient’s health? Or say no and upset the patient?
Those physicians with the highest ratings must be saying “yes” all the time! But this can’t be right either. Thinking back to my residency training, there were plenty of mentors who were such effective communicators that patients left empowered and educated, rather than with a handful of prescriptions, and still felt they had the best doctor in the world.
Reflecting on this further, I began to see that I had overlooked some key elements that existed beyond the walls of the exam room. How meaningful is the smartest, most caring physician if you are hastily greeted and made to sit 45 minutes in the waiting room before being noticed? And how important is the treatment plan if no one calls you afterward to check in, or promptly responds to your email or phone call regarding a change in your health?
It becomes easy to see that while extraordinary physicians earn a share of this through their interactions with patients, an even larger share is gained by the work of their medical team. As one might liken a physician to a winning coach, it is actually these unsung heroes who are the most valuable players leading the team to victory. The people who comfort you, keep you informed, follow up with you and help make your arrangements when the health care system is too confusing or overwhelming to handle on your own.
The fact is – many of us physicians will always be “good” doctors. It’s making that leap to becoming extraordinary that requires all hands on deck. So as more and more people gain health insurance and finally get around to finding a primary care doctor, my one piece of advice is as follows: find a person and a place that welcomes you into their medical home. The one place you will go to learn, to heal, and to stay well. Only there might you find that your regular doctor isn’t so regular after all.