When my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer, we went on the hunt for a doctor. A good doctor, of course. She lived in Los Angeles, a major city with a lot of medical centers and a lot of oncologists; we thought it would be easy to find an doctor. But we were naive.
First of all, there were a lot of doctors who wouldn't accept her insurance. Many were booked for months--there was no way we wanted to wait that long. We didn't come from a network of doctors; my mother's primary care doctor was the one who had misdiagnosed her for two years and she could hardly trust him to make a recommendation.
After a few days of frantic phone calls, we found an oncologist who had an opening. He had a great pedigree; he graduated from excellent medical schools and a top residency and fellowship. How lucky that he was available!
Pretty soon, we figured out his problem: he couldn't spare more than five minutes to talk with us. After a perfunctory hello, he cut my mother off at every turn.
"It's surgery and then it's chemo," he declared. But how did he know that? What were the risks? What should she expect? "We won't know until you get more tests," he said as he walked out of the room.
It was probably just one abrupt doctor, we reasoned. The search continued. My mother's second doctor had less than stellar credentials and an even less stellar manner. He nearly brought her to tears with his explanations, then yelled at her for not being able to commit to a treatment plan right away.
The third? This doctor spent a good 30 minutes with us, but for the entire appointment, he wouldn't look my mother in the eye. My mother remarked that it was disconcerting to have a conversation about breast removal surgery and not be able to know that your doctor saw you as a person.
This was nearly a decade ago. I was in my second year of medical school, and this was my introduction to the U.S. healthcare system from the patient perspective. Since then, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to navigate the maze as a patient. The costs are hidden and opaque; the diagnosis is often not given (or is wrong); the options are inadequately explained; the list goes on and on. My mother was eventually able to find an oncologist who did care for her and who did spend time with her (and who was able to look at her in the eye), but I am always reminded from this experience of how hard it is sometimes for patients to find a doctor--a good doctor.
My next blog post will be on how to recognize a good doctor. Stay tuned--and please post your thoughts on this topic.