5 Red Flags to Watch For When You See a New Doctor
Why it's worrisome: Cost is one of the reasons why 20 to 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not taking meds as prescribed has been found to lead to 125,000 preventable deaths per year, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education. It makes sense: You can't take your meds if you can't afford to get them.
What to do in the moment: Ask how much the medication they're prescribing is going to cost you. "Your doctor might not know how much a drug costs offhand, but they should be willing to look into it," says Leana Wen, MD, coauthor of When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Medical Tests. If it's more than you can pay, discuss whether there's a less expensive option. The CDC also suggests doctors provide manufacturer coupons to patients—ask if they have any available in office. If they say it's your responsibility to figure it out, see if there's someone else in the office—like a physician's assistant—who can help.
Do you need a new doctor?: Probably not. You likely won't need to have this conversation more than once, so unless there were other things about the visit that concerned you, you can stay put.
Red Flag #2: Every question they ask can be answered with a yes or no.
Why it's worrisome: Open-ended queries are one of the most powerful tools doctors have to identify a problem, says Wen. Of course, many medical issues are diagnosed or confirmed via tests or physical exams, but those should come after your doc hears you out. If every question is more "Is this symptom new?" and less "When did the symptom start?" there's a chance you could be misdiagnosed or given tests that you don't need. Wen points out that 30 percent of all health spending, including tests and treatments, is unnecessary, per the Institute of Medicine —and with that comes the risk of side effects, anxiety and expensive medical bills.
What to do in the moment: If you feel that there's more info your doc needs to know, try saying, "The short answer is yes, but there are some other factors that I think might be relevant." They'll likely want to hear what you have to say next.
Do you need a new doctor?: Possibly. Communication styles can be stubbornly hard to change, and if you noticed other signs of a personality mismatch between the two of you as well (like rushing you through your longer answers or interrupting you), you should think about other options.
Red Flag #3: They may not be putting their own health first.
Why it's worrisome: No one's perfect, and physicians are human (they've raided the vending machine for lunch, too), but your doctor should be demonstrating basic healthy-lifestyle practices, especially when it comes to weight management. One study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 18 percent of overweight and obese doctors talked about weight loss with their obese patients, compared with 30 percent of docs at a healthier weight. Physicians who were in better shape also said they felt more confident in their ability to give useful diet and exercise advice to patients. That confidence matters: Obese patients who gave their docs high "helpfulness" ratings lost more than two times as much weight as those who said theirs weren't helpful (11 versus 5 pounds) in a 2015 study.
What to do in the moment: If you want to talk weight—and your doctor isn't bringing it up—make the first move and ask for their advice. Most likely, they'll have plenty of ideas and resources to help you reach a healthier weight.
Do you need a new doctor?: Yes, if they brush it off or offer less than helpful tips. You want a doctor who can help you identify the issues keeping you from getting to a healthy weight (you might know how to work out, for example, but just can't find the motivation to do it versus someone who needs a detailed fitness plan to follow) and come up with solutions tailored to you.
Red Flag #4: They're quick to dismiss alternative remedies.
Why it's worrisome: If you ask about herbs for your high blood pressure or taking up meditation for your anxiety and get little more than side-eye in response, you've got two problems. First, some alternative therapies could be harmful (certain herbs could interact with medications you're already on) and your doc should be able to clearly communicate any risks to you. Second, there are some non-traditional remedies that are backed up by research (and there's always new research being published)—you want to feel that you can trust that your doc is up to date on the literature. They may not have ready every study on the therapy you're suggesting, but "they should at least be open to discussing it," says Trisha Torrey, patient advocate (everypatientsadvocate.com) and founder and director of the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates. That shows a level of support, and a stronger patient-physician relationship drives better health behaviors, reports a 2011 study in Health Services Research.
What you should do in the moment: If you've brought up your suggestion and your doctor says it's not a good idea, ask them to explain why.
Do you need a new doctor?: Maybe. If they don't care to elaborate on why they're against the alternative option, you two probably aren't a good fit. They don't need to be an expert in using yoga for back pain or acupuncture for migraines for you to stay, but if they're willing to share their thoughts on it, it's a good sign that you two can come to a decision that's best for your health.
Red Flag #5: They're making more eye contact with their computer than with you.
Why it's worrisome: We're all for electronic health records, which are great for keeping your medical info in one place and are increasingly required by law. But being absorbed in them during the appointment means your doctor may not hear everything you say or may fail to notice telling body language, making it more likely that they'll miss key diagnostic information, says Zackary Berger, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine and author of Talking to Your Doctor and the forthcoming Making Sense of Medicine.
What you should do: Ask if you can spend a couple of minutes talking without the computer.
Do you need a new doctor?: Probably not. Odds are your doctor won't take offense to your request (they likely don't enjoy staring at that screen any more than you enjoy feeling ignored), but if they do, you may want to find a doctor who takes a more personable approach to appointments.