Top Qualities for Consumers Choosing a Doctor

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Survey says: bedside manner, communication skills and board certification rank tops with consumers when choosing a doc.

A new survey found that consumers consider communication skills as one of the top qualities they look for in a doctor. Not surprising. But what is surprising is that while board certification also ranked as one of the top qualities desired, the survey found that consumers don’t fully understand what these credentials mean, and the majority of survey participants had never checked to see if their doctor is board certified.

The survey was commissioned by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), which has overseen physician certification standards for nearly 75 years and provides free public resources to help consumers check on their doctors’ certification status.

When it comes to choosing a doctor, most Americans rank bedside manner and communications skills at the top of the list of qualities important to them, far ahead of the doctor’s hospital affiliation, place of training or office location, according to a survey commissioned by the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), a not-for-profit organization that oversees the board certification of U.S. medical specialists.

• A new survey from the American Board of Medical Specialties found that more than nine out of 10 Americans ranked communication skills and board certification highest in important qualities they look for in choosing a doctor.

• The survey found that most Americans think board certification is important, but don’t understand what it means.

• The majority of respondents had never checked to see if their doctor is board certified.

Having a doctor who is board certified is a close second in importance to consumers.

Ninety-five percent of respondents ranked communications skills and bedside manner as important, with board certification ranked as important by 91 percent. When asked to select the “most important” physician attribute, 34 percent named bedside manner and communication skills. Although 25 percent of respondents listed board certification as the “most important” physician attribute, the survey also showed that the majority of respondents didn’t understand what board certification is.

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“While the vast majority of respondents said board certification is important to them, most didn’t understand the meaning of board certification,” said ABMS president and CEO Kevin Weiss, MD. “Sixty percent incorrectly believe that a doctor has to be board certified to practice medicine and only 45 percent of survey respondents had ever checked to see if their doctor is board certified. Board certification is actually a voluntary process a doctor undertakes to demonstrate a commitment to lifelong learning and proficiency in his or her medical specialty.”

According to Dr. Weiss, one reason for the information gap may be the difficulty people have in accessing information about their physicians. More than half (57 percent) of respondents said it is difficult to find useful, clear information on doctors.

ABMS oversees 24 Member Boards that certify physicians in more than 145 specialties and subspecialties, and serves as a resource for consumers seeking information on physician qualifications. Certification by an ABMS Member Board is widely recognized in healthcare as the gold standard for judging a physician’s knowledge, experience and skills within a medical specialty.

Physicians who want to maintain their board certification participate in a program called ABMS Maintenance of Certification™ (MOC), which evaluates a physician’s skills and knowledge on an ongoing basis – rather than once every several years – and includes communication skills as part of the evaluation.

“Communication skills are increasingly recognized as an essential component of quality healthcare, and not something that’s nice, but not necessary,” Dr. Weiss said. “These survey findings confirm that patients are demanding that their doctors treat them not just with medicines and procedures, but with empathy and information that they understand.”

Other findings from the survey:

· Half of respondents do not ask questions or check out the qualifications of a specialist when they have one recommended to them by their doctor. Just under a third (31 percent) ask questions about the doctor’s qualifications and 28 percent research the doctor’s qualifications before making an appointment.

· Americans have gone to different lengths to check out a doctor. Checking to see if a doctor is board certified is something 45 percent have done whereas only 5 percent have paid for a report on a doctor. Twenty-three percent say they have checked to see if a doctor has ever been sued for malpractice or if they have ever been disciplined by a regulatory board.

· Forty-two percent have researched a doctor online using a variety of different Web sites. Of these, two-thirds (66 percent) have used WebMD or a similar site while 65 percent have gone to the Web site of a specific hospital, clinic or doctor’s office. Half (54 percent) have researched a doctor on the Web site of a specific specialty or professional association.

Methodology:

The survey was conducted May 16-19, 2008, among a representative sample of 1,009 adults (men and women over the age of 18) in the continental United States. Results were weighted by age, gender, race and region to ensure a representative sample. The margin of error for results based on the total survey is plus or minus four percentage points.

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