Consumers' CHECKBOOK Logo

Nonprofit Ratings of Local Service
Companies and Health Care Providers

CHECKBOOK is a Unique Rating Service:
Nonprofit & unbiased
Accepts no advertising
Prevents ballot-box stuffing
Price comparisons
Quality comparisons
Expert articles and advice

Only $34 for Two Full years!
(View All Rating Categories)
Primary Care Physicians (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2015/Winter 2016)
Find Top-Rated Doctors

In an area crowded with healthcare providers, health administrators, health planners, and numerous other types of healthcare professionals, it is remarkable how many area residents violate this basic precept: Find thyself a good personal physician. 

Your choices of physicians, especially your primary care physician, are the most important decisions you make in determining the quality of your medical care. Your personal doctor will initiate diagnostic procedures,c devise treatment plans, guide you through care decisions, prescribe medications, authorize hospital admissions, refer you to other physicians and other providers, and in general be the center of your healthcare experiences. You need to select, and build a relationship with, a good primary care physician—a family practitioner, internist, pediatrician (for children), or geriatrician—and working with that physician play an active role when you need to choose a specialist. 

How We Rate Physicians 

We provide several types of information to help you choose the best doctors. 

Patient Ratings of Primary Care Doctors 

Our Ratings Tables for primary care doctors reports ratings of area physicians collected in our surveys of patients. For primary care physicians, patients are the best source of information on many aspects of quality, including how well physicians listen, explain things, help patients coordinate care among other physicians and healthcare providers, and make themselves accessible for appointments and advice. These aspects of care are critical to prevention, accurate diagnoses, and a patient’s ability and motivation to do his or her part in carrying out a plan of care. 

Our survey asked consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) to rate their experiences with doctors they had recently seen on several aspects of care and service: 

  • Listening to/communicating with you 
  • Personal manner (courtesy, respect, sensitivity, friendliness) 
  • Spending enough time with you 
  • Seeking your input in making decisions 
  • Coordinating your care 
  • Giving prevention/self-help advice 
  • Thoroughness, carefulness, and apparent competence 
  • Arranging to see you quickly when you request an appointment 
  • Giving timely, helpful advice by phone or email 
  • Keeping down office waiting time 
  • Overall quality 

Our Ratings Tables report the percentage of respondents who rated each physician as “very good” or “excellent” (as opposed to “poor,” “fair,” or “good”) on each question. We have reported results for all physicians for whom we received at least 10 ratings on our customer surveys. 

Answers to these survey questions and other feedback are not about only pleasantness or comfort; they go to the heart of quality medical care. For example, research has shown that patients who receive care from doctors who listen and communicate well tend to receive more accurate diagnoses, respond better to treatment, and recover more quickly. Certainly, it is hard for a doctor to make a good diagnosis or a good treatment plan without listening to what is bothering you and hearing about any impediments you might have to self-care. And you are more likely to do your part in your treatment—for example, taking medicine and making lifestyle changes—if the doctor has successfully communicated what is expected of you, why it is important, and what you can expect to experience. 

Doctors who received high ratings on our surveys are good candidates, but keep in mind that often the number of raters is small and that a larger number of respondents might have produced substantially higher or lower scores. Also keep in mind that the survey responses are inherently subjective; because doctor-patient relationships are very personal, a physician our respondents liked may not be one you like. Click here to read about other limitations of our customer survey results and other research methods. 

Board Certification 

Our Ratings Tables also report the board certifications, if any, each doctor holds. Board certification means that a physician has taken several years of practical training in a field after graduating from medical school and has passed a difficult exam in that field and met other requirements of a specialty board. Many doctors must continue to meet educational and other requirements and take tests every six to 10 years (depending on the specialty) to maintain their certification. But that “maintenance of certification” requirement doesn’t apply to doctors originally certified more than a certain number of years ago (about 25 years ago for most specialties) because certification was formerly for life. 

Information on physicians’ board certifications came from the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). We used an ABMS list from August 2015; the list could not include certification information on doctors who subsequently became certified. Conversely, our list may include certification information for doctors who subsequently lost certification status. The ABMS website indicates whether individual physicians are currently board certified. 

Recommendations from Other Doctors 

Our Top Doctors list provides another valuable source for insight on a physician’s performance: judgments of his or her peers. 

We regularly survey all actively practicing physicians in the 53 largest U.S. metropolitan areas and ask them to tell us which one or two specialists in each of 35 or more specialty fields they “would consider most desirable for care of a loved one.” Our Top Doctors database tells you the area physicians who were recommended most often in those surveys. 

Our Ratings Tables reporting patient ratings of primary care doctors also identifies the primary care physicians receiving at least 10 patient ratings who were most often recommended by other doctors. But because there are hundreds of primary care doctors practicing in the area, primary care physician recommendations were spread out more thinly than recommendations for most other specialties. Consequently, our list of doctors most often recommended by other doctors doesn’t begin to include all of the top-quality primary care doctors in the area. 

For more information on our ratings of doctors by other surveyed doctors, visit our Top Doctors section. 

Comparisons of Surgical Outcomes 

Our Surgeon Ratings website reports which surgeons in the U.S. produced better-than-average results for each of 14 types of high-risk surgery. We found big surgeon-to-surgeon differences. Choosing a top surgeon greatly enhances your chances of avoiding complications and even death. 

Other Available Information on Doctors 

Medicare’s Physician Compare Website 

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) charged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with creating the Physician Compare website to provide much information on physician quality. That website is moving toward including information on physician qualifications, whether physicians follow evidence-based clinical guidelines, whether they achieve good patient outcomes, patient ratings, and other aspects of quality care. 

So far this website has provided very little useful information: Most existing information is reported at the physician-group level and only for groups of 25 or more physicians; patients want to know about individual physician performance, as significant doctor-to-doctor variation exists within medical groups and clinics on many quality measures. However, HHS appears to be (slowly) moving toward reporting a broad range of quality measures at the individual doctor level. So stay tuned. 

Health Insurance Plan Provider Directories 

Most health insurance plans post physician directories online. The better plans list information such as specialty, medical school and year of graduation, hospital affiliations, biographical info, and treatment philosophy. Some forward-looking plans use medical claims data and other data sources to check whether doctors consistently comply with evidence-based clinical guidelines, identify doctors who fail to perform recommended procedures (such as eye exams and hemoglobin tests for diabetics), and perform inappropriate or unnecessary procedures. But because most plans have as members only a limited number of each doctor’s patients, sample sizes for such assessments are often small. Also, anyone attempting to use claims data to judge physicians will encounter difficulties, such as not knowing whether a doctor had a good clinical reason for not performing a test in a particular case, or whether the doctor knew the test had been performed elsewhere (for instance, in a clinic or hospital). 

Physician Recognition Programs 

Some independent programs also enable physicians to seek recognition for the quality of their practices. 

The National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) and the Health Care Incentives Improvement Institute (HCI3) Bridges to Excellence (BTE) have recognition programs for doctors who participate in patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs). These are innovative efforts to provide patient care in a setting that facilitates partnerships between individual patients, their personal physicians, other healthcare providers, and when appropriate, patients’ families. Care is facilitated by information technology, information exchange, and other means to ensure that patients receive the indicated care when and where they need and want it in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. 

NCQA and BTE also have programs in which doctors voluntarily agree to have their practices reviewed and seek to be recognized for consistent high-quality care of certain conditions—for example, diabetes, heart/stroke, and back pain—and also for practice connections (using up-to-date information and systems to enhance patient care). For example, the diabetes recognition program checks doctors’ success with controlling patients’ blood pressure and encouraging smoking cessation. 

Professional Associations 

Medical associations also provide lists of names and addresses and, in some cases, other useful information about doctors. 

For example, the American Medical Association’s (AMA) DoctorFinder allows you to search by specialty and location; it offers information on training, hospital affiliations, specialties, and board certification for AMA members—but only name, primary specialty, board certification information, city, and zip code for the many physicians who are not AMA members. 

Hospital Affiliation and Medical School Faculty 

Another option is to ask a top-quality hospital for names of its affiliated physicians. Using our ratings of more than 4,000 acute-care hospitals in the U.S. you can check to see which doctors are affiliated with top hospitals by calling hospitals or, for most hospitals, checking their websites. Good sources of prospects are teaching hospitals, where you can specifically request doctors who have teaching responsibilities. Although the full-time faculty at a local medical school may include only a handful of primary care physicians, a surprisingly large number of doctors teach—often putting in two or three hours per week in clinical work with medical students and interns—while maintaining their own practices. Doctors who teach part-time at area medical schools are excellent prospects, as are doctors who teach at large community hospitals. 

Getting the Best Care 

Whichever doctor you select, the way you interact with the doctor will have a big effect on the success of your care. Here are some suggestions. 

Make Sure Your Doctor Takes a Thorough Medical History 

If you feel your doctor has not asked about matters that might be important in diagnosing or treating you, volunteer the information. If both of your parents had colon cancer, if your dad had a heart attack at age 40, if you recently had a bout with kidney stones, or if you periodically feel very depressed, let the doctor know. 

Find Out About Tests Your Doctor Proposes 

Ask your doctor what tests he or she will perform during routine visits—mammogram, hemoccult test for blood in your stool, PSA test for prostate cancer, electrocardiogram, sigmoidoscopy to check your rectum and lower colon, cholesterol test, tests for STDs? Ask why specific tests and not others. If you are concerned about particular medical problems, ask if there are relevant tests and why they do or don’t make sense for you. 

There’s a lot of debate in the medical field about which routine tests are worth doing for which population groups, and how often. There are reasons not to perform tests: Some are unpleasant, some are costly, some pose risks of complications, and tests can possibly indicate problems that don’t exist—leading to costly, unpleasant, and possibly dangerous treatment. You should be given an opportunity to express your preferences regarding tests, based on information about each test’s pros and cons. 

Find out not only about routine tests performed during preventive exams but also about any tests prescribed to check out specific symptoms or medical problems. Ask what each test will tell you that you don’t already know, how reliable it is, the risks and costs, and whether the results might make any real difference in your treatment plan. 

A great source for information about unnecessary tests and procedures is

Obtain the Results of All Exams and Treatment 

At the time of a doctor visit, ask when the results will be available and how you’ll be informed of them. Some doctors tell you nothing unless there is a problem, an approach that may leave you wondering long after your doctor has the answers. There’s also the risk that phone messages will be lost and you won’t realize that a doctor called to give you results. If you know that a doctor is supposed to call, and when, you can check back if you do not hear from your doctor. 

Discuss the Results of Exams 

When you get test results, ask the doctor to compare them to results from previous tests and whether life changes are worth making to improve results. Even if your cholesterol count or weight is within an acceptable range, for example, is it worse than it was? Worse enough to do something about it? 

Prepare for Appointments 

Before a doctor visit—either to a doctor’s office or by the doctor when you are in the hospital—get ready. Think about what questions you want answered, symptoms you’ve experienced, treatments you or other providers have administered. 

Write down your questions and other information to make sure you don’t overlook something. Bring medications with you to the doctor’s office. 

If the doctor seems to be rushing you through your list of items, explain that discussing these matters is important to you and the doctor should give you enough time. Take notes. Consider bringing a friend or family member to help you push to get through your questions and remember the doctor’s responses. 

Describe Symptoms in Detail 

Does the problem occur only after you’ve just eaten, after you’ve exercised heavily, when you’ve been standing for a long time, only when you urinate? What does it feel like? When did you first notice the problem? Your description is a window to what’s going on inside—often a better window than all the examining and testing the doctor can do. 

If you’re afraid you might have a particular medical condition, tell the doctor. This will give the doctor a chance to investigate those concerns or assure you that they are unfounded. 

Find Out About Getting Answers by Phone 

While many questions require a visit to the doctor or tests, some can be resolved based on what you communicate by phone. Also, a phone call can often help you determine whether a doctor visit is needed—and how soon. 

Ask your doctor if you can talk to a nurse about questions you may have. And find out the best time to reach the doctor by phone. 

Request a Full Explanation of Your Diagnosis, Treatment Options, and Outlook for Recovery 

After your doctor has had a chance to evaluate your case, obtain a full explanation of what he or she has discovered, your choices, and what you can expect. 

What isn’t working right? What caused it? What can be done about it now? If it’s curable, what can you do differently to avoid a recurrence—for example, eat differently, exercise differently, sleep differently, sit differently, change jobs, wear a brace? 

How certain is the doctor of the diagnosis? What are the other possibilities? What more can be done to confirm the diagnosis? At what cost and what risk? 

What are the treatment options? What are the risks and costs? What are the possible benefits in terms of your lifestyle and ability to function? How will you know if the treatment is working? What will you need to report to the doctor? 

One of your fundamental rights as a patient is the right to informed consent. If you agree to a doctor’s treatment—with drugs, knives, or other instruments—that you would not have chosen had you better understood your options, the doctor’s actions amount to an assault. That’s why responsible doctors understand the importance of answering all your questions. 

Ask About Referrals to Specialists 

If your doctor refers you to a specialist, ask why a specialist is needed and why that particular specialist. What is known about the specialist’s expertise and experience with your type of case? Is this the only specialist of this type that your primary doctor can refer you to under his or her arrangements with your health plan? Ask the doctor to compare the referred specialist to other specialists listed in our lists of doctors most often recommended by other doctors. If it is a surgeon in an applicable specialty, check how the surgeon compares to other surgeons in our ratings for surgical outcomes

What should you expect the specialist to do? How will your primary care doctor remain involved in your care? 

If you are not referred to a specialist, ask why not. What extra expertise might a specialist bring to the case? 

Remember that some health plans have physician compensation schemes that penalize—or reward—a doctor for making referrals to specialists. 

Ask About Medication 

If medication is recommended, ask why that particular medication. What benefits are expected? How soon? What are the possible side effects and what should you do if you experience them? How should you take the medication—for example, with meals, at bedtime? Can you take it even though you’re taking other medications? What if you forget to take a dose? Will the medication limit your capacity to drive, work, or participate in other activities? 

You may find it useful to consult a drug reference guide. Consumer Reports’ Best Buy Drugs covers thousands of brand-name and generic drugs. 

Free websites also provide extensive information on drugs—what they treat, possible side effects, interactions, etc. A useful site is MedLinePlus

Ask About Hospitalization 

If hospitalization is not recommended, ask why not. Hospitals are expensive and health plans are interested in cutting costs. If a plan provides less income to doctors when patients are hospitalized, make sure the financial incentives won’t cause you to receive insufficient care. 

On the other hand, if hospitalization is recommended, ask why. Could the case be handled on an outpatient basis? 

Also, be sure to ask why a particular hospital was chosen. Is it the only hospital to which your doctor is allowed to refer under arrangements with your health plan? Compare suggested hospitals with our ratings of hospitals for inpatient care

Get a Second Opinion 

If your doctor recommends hospitalization or other expensive, risky, or burdensome treatment, get a second opinion. In such cases, most doctors will encourage second opinions. Most plans will be glad to pay, since the second opinion may lead to a recommendation of less care—and less cost. 

If your doctor recommends against certain types of care that you know are available—or if you doubt your doctor’s conclusions or are dissatisfied with the progress of your case—obtain a second opinion to consider more or different care. In a traditional insurance plan or preferred provider organization (PPO), the plan will generally pay for you to arrange for a second opinion on your own. In an HMO, your doctor will have to refer you for the second opinion for the plan to pay. Since the second opinion might lead to more care, there may be some resistance to authorizing it. If you think a second opinion is justified, insist on one. If the first and second opinions are in conflict, or for some other reason you still doubt the conclusions, insist on a third opinion. 

If possible, get your second opinion from an entirely independent doctor. If a surgeon who has recommended surgery refers you to another surgeon for a second opinion, it will be difficult for the second doctor to recommend against the first surgeon’s advice (and economic interests). Our database listing specialists most often recommended by their peers will help you identify doctors to consult for a second opinion. Read up on your type of case—especially types actively researched at certain medical centers—to locate leading specialists who might be available for consultation. 

To minimize the cost and time required for a second opinion, have your first doctor send copies of your medical records, X-rays, and lab results to the second-opinion doctor; this is standard procedure. 

Don’t assume that because your case is straightforward and uncomplicated there is nothing to learn and no decisions to be made. In most cases, there are choices. 

This point is brought home by studies performed by Dartmouth College medical school researchers and others who examined variations in medical practice in common types of cases across similar geographic areas. One study found, for example, that about 75 percent of the elderly men in one Maine town had undergone prostate surgery, compared with fewer than 25 percent of men the same age in an adjacent town. Similar variations have been found in rates of hysterectomies, caesarean sections, and other common procedures. Significantly, studies generally find no evidence that such differences in treatment produce differences in the health status of the affected populations. 

The implication is that big differences in the ways patients are treated result from differences in the beliefs and customs of different physicians in different communities—possibly influenced by the need to generate fees and not necessarily based on sound evidence of likely benefits to the patient. Even in common types of cases, don’t assume that a physician’s standard recommendation is your best option. 

Complain If Necessary 

  • If you have a dispute with a doctor, you may be able to resolve it by discussion with the doctor. If that fails, you can file a formal complaint with your state’s medical board. 

Questions to Ask Prospective Physicians 

Once you have identified potential candidates, get answers to these questions about each of them. Some questions can be answered by checking various sources (see page 6); others will require a call to the doctor’s office; and still others will require asking other patients, or meeting—or using—the doctor. 

  • Does the doctor work as a personal, or family, doctor on a primary care basis? For children, for adults, or both? 
  • Is the doctor accepting new patients—specifically patients from your health insurance plan? 
  • At what hospitals does the doctor admit patients? Preferably, choose a doctor who can admit patients to one or more top-rated hospitals. There is a good chance that you will be admitted to one of these hospitals if you need hospitalization—even if you are admitted by a specialist. Your primary care doctor is likely to refer you to specialists who practice at the same hospitals he or she uses. 
  • Does the doctor use an electronic health record system? There is evidence that implementation and use of electronic health record systems represent some of the greatest improvements in medical care. 
  • Is the doctor “board certified” in his or her specialty? Board certified means that the doctor has taken at least two to six years of post-medical school training and has passed a difficult exam. And while a well-recommended doctor who is not board certified may perform admirably, it makes sense to seek out certification. Our Ratings Tables indicate each physician’s board certification status according to records available at the time of publication, according to the American Board of Medical Specialties
  • Where did the doctor take his or her residency? Hospitals where doctors take advanced post-medical school training—called a “residency”—that have recognizable university ties usually provide good instruction; for instance, Duke University Hospital or Stanford University Medical Center. But the absence of a university connection in a hospital’s name doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have one. 
  • From what medical school did the doctor graduate? Virtually all U.S. medical schools are acknowledged to be of relatively high quality, and medical schools in countries such as Canada, the U.K., Switzerland, and Belgium are of comparable quality. Give special consideration to doctors trained in the U.S. or one of these countries, but remember that most experts think the site of a physician’s residency is more relevant than the medical school. 
  • When did the doctor graduate from medical school? This tells you roughly the doctor’s age. You may prefer a doctor who has many years of practical experience and has treated a vast range of medical problems. Or you might want a younger doctor unlikely to retire soon. A recent graduate might also have more up-to-date training, although many older doctors stay current by teaching, engaging in hospital activities, and participating in continuing education programs. 
  • Does the doctor have teaching responsibilities at a hospital? If you found the doctor through a hospital referral service, you may already have this answer. It’s important because a teaching position reflects respect from colleagues and also ensures that the doctor is regularly exposed to new developments and questions from medical students and residents. 
  • Does the doctor practice in a group or alone? Doctors who share an office may share ideas and maintain informal standards of quality. They may also be able to operate more efficiently by sharing costly equipment and specialized staff. Finally, if the group includes doctors with different specialties, referrals are convenient and your medical record can comprehensively incorporate all the specialists’ comments. On the other hand, doctors in a multi-specialty group may not be as flexible about referring you outside the group to the very best specialist for your particular problem. 
  • What are the doctor’s hours? Many doctors schedule weekend or evening hours to accommodate patients’ work schedules. 
  • How does the doctor cover emergencies on nights and weekends? Be wary of a doctor who does not have an arrangement with at least one other doctor to share “on call” duties. Where will you turn when the doctor is out of town, ill, or at a meeting? 
  • Does the doctor give regular patients advice over the phone? Does the doctor answer questions by email? Is there a charge for such advice? Phone and email advice can be a great convenience—a partial substitute for the house calls most doctors no longer make. With malpractice liability looming over them, doctors are careful about giving such advice in questionable cases, but most doctors offer some advice over the phone, and some now use email. Very few charge for such advice, as long as patients occasionally schedule office visits and don’t call or email too often. 
  • What is the usual wait to get an appointment for a non-emergency medical problem? For a full physical exam? 
  • Will the doctor deal with your insurance carrier? You save time if your doctor bills your insurance company directly. Also, doctors with no relationship with your insurance company may charge higher fees than the insurance company will pay, leaving you responsible for the difference. And your insurance company might expect you to pay a higher percentage of the covered fees than you would pay plan-affiliated doctors. If you have Medicare, find out whether the doctor participates in Medicare. 
  • What is the charge to you for a routine follow-up office visit? For a routine follow-up hospital visit? For a typical general physical exam? The answers will give you a sense of the doctor’s charges for other services, and how the charges relate to your health plan’s payment rules. 
  • How convenient is the doctor’s office? Is there public transportation? Parking? 
  • What lab, X-ray, and machine diagnostic tests can be performed in the doctor’s own office? While it’s convenient to have all these diagnostic services performed in one place, be aware that doctors who provide these services have a financial incentive for prescribing them, possibly leading to additional unnecessary tests. 

When you have gathered all the information you can from calls to physicians’ offices, conversations with friends, and other sources, consider a visit to the physician who seems most appealing. While a visit just to meet a doctor should be inexpensive or free, some patients find this kind of meeting awkward, a feeling some doctors share. A considerably more expensive alternative is to schedule a physical exam. 

If you do not feel it’s immediately necessary to establish a relationship with a doctor, keep your notes on the doctors you have researched and call your first choice when a medical problem arises. 

If you are dissatisfied with your first meeting, or any subsequent encounter, look for someone else and have copies of your records sent there (you have a right to your records). But avoid hopping from doctor to doctor. An established relationship with a doctor you like and trust is a healthful asset. 

Find Top-Rated Doctors Back to top