How to find a good doctor online

The internet is a great place to look for good doctors. However, which doctor clicks for you depends on how you make your choice

Raymond Pinto was returning home to pick up his wife and proceed to the nearest hospital. His wife had telephoned him an hour ago, complaining of severe abdominal pain since afternoon. As his chauffeur weaved his way through Mumbai’s traffic, Raymond was on his cell phone, desperately trying to locate the best doctor in the locality. Being new in Mumbai, they didn’t know a local doctor they could rely upon.

Punching a few keys, he secured a list of “best” doctors on Google for stomach ache. In 0.14 seconds, he got 218,000 results! That’s when it got confusing. Is the first listed name really the best? Or are the names at the top, listed based on the payments made to the search engine? Now how does Raymond sift through those names and make sure that his wife reaches a genuine doctor?

The explosive growth of information technology has been a blessing in many ways. With the easy availability of personal computers, affordable mobile phones and ready internet access, the world is at one’s fingertips [well, literally]. It’s now possible to get a plumber, order a bouquet, buy a gizmo or learn the intricacies of an ugly skin disease instantly, without stepping out of the house .

A person suffering from an incurable illness can easily get information of the latest treatment. You can even get details of a hospital or a clinic, including directions to the place, equipped with nothing more than its name. “So, what’s the problem?” you may ask. The difficulty is that the information available on the worldwide web is not complete. Moreover, since there is no system to monitor whether the facts stated on websites are accurate, not everything that is listed is 100 per cent authentic. Even if it is, it becomes difficult to zero down on the right choice for you when you are faced with an explosion of options. Allow me to help you make an informed choice…

A word about websites

There are different kinds of websites on the internet. Private or ‘promotional’ websites put up by individuals and organisations primarily to serve two purposes: provide details of the services and serve as a medium to advertise their business. In addition, there are independent ‘service’ websites, which simply list various categories of products and services available globally. Search engines too display list of websites based on their own tracking and rating system. They provide prominent slots to paid advertisers, which are placed higher in the list for easy access by the user.

Unlike browsing health-related information, finding the specific doctor through the internet is not without its dangers. Therefore, one should have a clear idea of how the listing system works on the internet.

The logic behind listings

All search engines produce lists of items searched in a particular order, which is decided by their software protocol. The number of visits [or ‘hits’] a website receives in a specific period of time determines the popularity of that site. The search engine scans the contents of the site as well as the amount of time the user lingers on the page. As the number of hits increases, the search engine pushes the site upward in the list. Therefore, the first name in the list is the most searched site and is probably the most accurate one for the user.

Making the decision

Remember that not all doctors are listed on the web. Many senior and sought-after doctors don’t have websites. On the contrary, novices who have recently set up plush clinics may have sophisticated websites. Looking at the layout of the site does not always give a clue to the abilities of the physician. For that, you need to do a little more—make telephonic enquiries after you have short-listed your options from the internet. It would be foolish to make a quick search and rush to the first doctor available. The following points should help:

  1. Check the physician’s qualifications: Is he a general physician or a specialist? Is the doctor an allopath/MBBS, homoeopath [BHMS], ayurvedic [BAMS] doctor or simply a beautician practising under the guise of a ‘cosmetologist’? Is he a diplomate for example Dip. Child Health [DCH], a postgraduate [MD, MS, PhD] or a super specialist [DM, M.Ch]? Is he also stating from where he has procured the degrees? For instance, medical college or university name.
  2. Check for affiliations: Is the doctor practising solo or is he also attached with some government bodies? Government hospitals employ only qualified personnel. Hence, someone who is a consultant at a hospital run by the local body would be one with some degree of experience and authenticity. Is he a professor too, teaching at a medical college? A teacher at a medical college is usually one with vast experience in his field. Besides, teaching doctors have better skills of communication than those who are only into private practice. Is he a member of a recognised medical speciality association? Is the association a broad-based national or international body? Is the physician listed in the members’ directory? Does he consult at any private hospital or a well-known industrial group? Large corporations appoint senior and highly skilled consultants on their panel to take care of their employees. Therefore, a physician who is attached to a large organisation is someone whose bio-data is vetted by a team of eminent people.
  3. Check for internet presence: Does the physician have his website or a blog? Are his articles constantly updated? Are the articles simple to understand or are they full of confusing jargon? Does he participate in online forums and provide credible solutions or simply promotes his practice? Does his personal website state his experience in practice? Are his qualifications and institutional attachments mentioned clearly? Perhaps you could call up one of the organisations and verify the attachment. Does the physician contribute to reputed online journals published globally? Is he mentioned in, say the British Medical Journal or Archives of Dermatology? Is he quoted by other authors in medical journals or websites or newspapers/magazines? Are the physician’s works elicited in an internet search? Some of these articles will quote his qualification or his hospital attachment. This data helps ratify the claim made by the physician on his personal website. If the physician is easy to find on the internet and his name appears in prominent journals and sites, run an internet search and check if you can get more information about him.
  4. Read reviews: Are there reviews about him? Read them. Where are the reviews, in forums or on his website? There is a difference between testimonials and reviews. Testimonials are provided by doctors on their own website and they may not be authentic. Rely more on reviews rather than testimonials. If the testimonial provides a contact, call up and talk to the person who’s provided the testimonial.
  5. Call the clinic: Call the clinic/hospital and talk to the receptionist. Verify the qualifications mentioned. Ask questions about the type of work done by the doctor and whether he is attached to major institutions. A simple talk with the person will clarify if there is something erratic.Speak to the physician and get a feel of how she sounds over the phone. Does she appear warm and friendly or was she in a hurry to end the call? Remember, though, that doctors obviously do not provide consultation over the telephone to strangers. Therefore, avoid asking queries. It might even put off a well-meaning physician.

Armed with this knowledge you can be fairly certain whether the physician being located is qualified, reputed and responsive. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Therefore, the final step before surrendering oneself to an unknown doctor is to actually visit the clinic and look at its upkeep. Check whether the clinic is reasonably well-maintained and whether there is a crowd of patients waiting for their turn. You can even talk to the receptionist or other patients in the waiting room for a first-hand feel of the place. Most clinics have notice boards displayed in the waiting rooms. Give it a good look to see if the physician provides up-to-date information about current illnesses or it has an old collection of newspaper clippings. This may give a clue to the doctor’s interest and attitude towards the waiting patients.

In the final analysis, if one gets the feeling that the physician is not the one you had in mind, flee from the waiting room itself…. And start another online search!

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Rajan T D
Rajan T D, MD, DVD, DNB is specialist in skin and sexually transmitted diseases. He is consultant to several large corporations including Air India, ONGC, Larsen & Toubro Ltd and honorary dermatologist at the CMPH Medical College.

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