Top Docs: Choosing a primary care physician

Getty/LEWIS WHYLD Getty/LEWIS WHYLD Photo Credit: Getty/LEWIS WHYLD

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Peggy O'Donnell, a Lynbrook nurse practitioner, knows a thing or two about picking a good primary care physician.

O'Donnell works for a doctor affiliated with South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside. She cares for more than 100 patients a week, doing work once reserved for doctors - prescribing medicine, diagnosing illnesses and administering physicals.

And O'Donnell insists that patients should make sure that their primary care doctors listen - really listen - to them. "Certainly you want somebody who's not going to only speak in lay language but do reflective listening," O'Donnell says. "You really have to have someone who hears what you're saying to them."

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Must communicate well

A good primary care physician - who could be a family practitioner, an internist, a specialist in adolescent or geriatric medicine or an obstetrician-gynecologist - communicates well with patients, says O'Donnell, who is also president of the Long Island chapter of the Nurse Practitioners Association of New York State.

O'Donnell and several Long Island physicians interviewed by Newsday identified a set of attributes and qualifications patients should look for in their doctors. They include board certification, a degree from a good medical school, an interest in providing preventive health care, availability when a patient is ill and a willingness to answer questions.

Dr. Joshua Kugler, the chief medical officer at South Nassau, urges patients to take a practical approach. "How do you find a place to buy a gallon of milk?" Kugler asks. "Keep it simple, be practical."

Convenience, good prices, a well-organized business and an ability to make people feel comfortable are all important, Kugler said.

Kugler suggests that patients with particular health problems look for a primary care doctor with a subspecialty. For example, people with heart conditions might want a primary care physician with a specialty in cardiology.

"What I don't like to see is a doctor who's had to move many times in a short span of time," Kugler says, noting that might indicate a problem practice.

And Kugler says patients shouldn't avoid doctors just out of medical school; they often know the newest techniques and research.

Dr. Joanne Gottridge, chief of the division of general internal medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, says a good primary care doctor has a smoothly run practice.

"I think the practice should be efficient," Gottridge says. "If you're routinely waiting hours for an appointment, there's something wrong with the practice."

Gottridge says doctors should have someone available to help patients who don't speak English. And, she says, doctors should be willing to help with small problems, like colds and sore throats, as well as more complex ailments, such as diabetes, and should stress preventive health practices.

Besides checking on a doctor's medical degree, Gottridge urges patients to find out whether he or she is board-certified. Board certification means a doctor has undergone additional training after medical school and has passed an examination in a medical specialty.

Dr. George Dunn, who has a family practice in Glen Cove and Oyster Bay and is president of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, says doctors need to pass the communications test, too.

Doctors who insist on speaking in scientific terms rather than explaining things in plain English can make understanding an illness difficult for a patient, Dunn says.

"If they speak in gobbledygook, it's not acceptable," Dunn says. "You have to tailor your message to the recipients."

But where can patients find information on medical credentials?

Research on the Web

Dunn says many patients now use Web sites of various medical societies and government offices that offer information on medical degrees, board certification and specialties.

Arthur Levin, director of the Manhattan nonprofit Center for Medical Consumers, a watchdog organization, urges patients to use the New York State Department of health Web site, www.health.state.ny.us. Clicking on the site's Doctor Profiles and Physician Discipline will bring up information about credentials, specialties and legal actions against physicians.

Levin says getting referrals from friends is one way to find a doctor, but, he cautions: "The movie your friends love, you may hate. There's no perfect way here. You have to cobble everything you have together."

And what if it turns out you don't like a doctor who seemed perfect? It might be time to switch, Dunn says.

"Remember, it's not a marriage," Dunn says. "You don't need a divorce."

To see the whole list...

Who else is on the list of Top Doctors? There are more than 6,000 listings in the New York Metro Area edition of "Top Doctors," published by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. The softcover list price is $24.95. For more information, go to castleconnolly.com or call 800-399-DOCS.

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