When choosing the right, or “best” physician, the first step is to remember that you’re choosing the best physician for you, as an individual. This takes into account your definition of health and your goals for healing and wellness. Your best physician is one who shares your perspective on health so that they can give you guidance and recommendations that are in accordance with how you want to care for your body.
Many doctors who have trained in the allopathic model of medicine think of health as simply the absence of a definable disease, and if that is your view as well, then their testing and treatment approach may work for you. Other models of medicine, such as Ayurveda, describe health as a natural state, and disease as merely a reflection of something that is getting in the way of experiencing your natural, healthy state. Their treatments and recommendations are aimed at identifying and removing whatever is blocking your body’s innate healing power, so that you can return to balance and health.
Reflection: Take a moment to consider your own definition of health. What does health mean to you? What are your goals for healing and wellness? What do you want to experience in terms of your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being? Write down your ideas and take some time this week to deepen your reflections.
Hallmarks of a Good Physician
Many people are looking for a doctor with a holistic approach who seeks to address the underlying causes of disease in addition to treating the symptoms. If this is the kind of physician you’re seeking, here are some of the most important qualities to look for:
- Holistic or Integrative Approach
Good holistic or integrative physicians are skilled at addressing a person as a whole, including the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. No matter what individual part of the body is experiencing a symptom or illness, a holistic physician looks at a patient’s lifestyle, including their relationships, work life, sense of meaning or purpose, diet, environment, and activities, to see the total picture. As research shows, lifestyle and daily choices have the greatest influence on health and well-being, so taking a holistic approach can help a doctor and patient work together to identify the underlying causes of any imbalances—and then take steps to restore balance and well-being.
From a holistic perspective, we aren’t simply a bag of molecules; instead, we are a complex system where each part communicates with every other part in every moment. Our thoughts influence our physiology, and we are also in constant, dynamic exchange with the extended body of our environment, which influences our individual health. A holistic approach also recognizes that our natural bacteria (or microbiome) are important in our overall health. When managing health, it’s important to address our entire ecosystem, inside and out.
- Well-Informed on the Newest Research
Good physicians keep up on the ever-changing world of health, wellness, and medicine, including the latest studies on the science of nutrition, mind-body medicine, and stress management. The amount of information and number of studies is increasing year by year, and it’s not acceptable for doctors to practice what we learned 20 years ago. That information is outdated and in many cases, just plain wrong. Your doctor should be willing to learn along with you. And because new studies are being done all the time, both doctor and patient should be accepting of the fact that it can take some research to find the best solution for a given patient.
It’s also no longer enough to know what tests to run to diagnose disease, which guidelines to follow to treat a certain disease, or what medication or procedure to use for a particular condition. In fact, many “standard” medical practices are quickly becoming outdated as research continues to advance. For example, the standardized parameters for “healthy” cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels that have been used for years have recently been called into question. Modern medicine is moving towards individualizing care and looking at what’s best for each patient, as opposed to making the same recommendations for everyone. Recent research suggests that we need to focus not only on a particular test value, but on the patient we are serving.
- Technical Skill and Expertise
Physicians need to have a high level of expertise and technical skill in their field of specialization. For instance, surgeons need to be good at the particular surgeries they perform. All procedures require training and expertise.
Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor how many times they’ve performed a particular procedure. Proper training and credentialing is important, so it’s reasonable to look into a physician’s medical board certification and credentials, as well as their experience. A physician who wants to deliver the best care will answer all of your questions without hesitation or defensiveness.
- Understanding of Stress Management
People with chronic stress are more likely to have increased biological markers of aging, higher cortisol levels, decreased immunity, increased depression, more infectious diseases, and slower wound healing. Since chronic stress has become a modern health epidemic, good physicians will talk to patients about stress levels and help them develop regular stress management practices as part of a healthy lifestyle.
At the very least, a physician should be able to refer patients to other health care professionals who can help them address these issues. Some of the most common and effective stress relief practices include meditation, yoga (or other mindful movement practices), and breathing techniques.
- The Key Ingredient of Compassion
I have practiced in a variety of settings in the course of my medical career, and have met some of the most amazing doctors. Some of them have been generalists and some have been specialists, however the common factor wasn’t necessarily how much they “knew” (although, as I’ve discussed, a command of medical knowledge is very important), but their holistic perspective and compassion for patients.
As the Ayurvedic physician Charaka wrote many centuries ago, “If a physician, even though having a profound knowledge of the scriptures, does not enter the heart of the patient with the flame of love, and the light of knowledge, he/she will not be able to treat the disease properly.” This brings home the importance of using compassion, as well as knowledge, to treat a patient. A physician who is looking at a patient as a whole will be more adept at determining whether a particular procedure or treatment is best for that individual—and better able to communicate that recommendation in a compassionate way.
In my practice as a primary care physician on a frontier island in Southeast Alaska, I saw patients of all kinds. They were sent to larger hospitals when they needed specialty care, and continued their ongoing care with us, in our small, community hospital setting. When I looked at the national statistics, I found that these patients did as well, if not better, than patients in other parts of the country with access to more extensive medical care. I noted this phenomenon again during my years practicing in rural Wisconsin. I concluded that the most important factor in a patient’s healing was not only informed, evidence-based care, but compassionate care.
We are also understanding that empathy and compassion can often result in better outcomes for patients. In your search for the best doctor for you, include compassion as an important quality in the doctor who will be working with you to create the highest levels of well-being in your mind, body, and spirit.
Red Flags: What to Avoid When Choosing a Doctor
Many of my patients over the years have seen specialists, or other physicians/health care practitioners, and they shared their complaints with me when they feel they had “poor” care. Even though they may have had a positive outcome as far as treatment of their acute problem, they still perceived that they didn’t get good care. I began to see common themes in their complaints, and consider them red flags that can signal that a doctor isn’t going to be a good fit for you. In general, I recommend that you avoid doctors who:
- Don’t listen to you or discount your thoughts about what is happening with your health
- Don’t fully explain your diagnosis or don’t recommend treatment in a way that makes sense to you
- Aren’t willing to look things up and learn about things they’re not familiar with
- Discount a particular healing modality because they don’t quite understand how it works
- Aren’t willing to ask for opinions from other physicians
Look for a True Partnership
I have had many patients and friends over the years who have seen a physician because they are considered “the best” in that field, but find that they’re not getting better. Many of the complaints I hear are “they wouldn’t listen to me” or “all they did was look at my labs.” If you’re not feeling a sense of partnership from your doctor, it’s time to find someone else. Although it can be challenging, given the nature of insurance coverage, it is in your best interest to do so. I urge you to find the right doctor for you—one who is aligned with your world view, and who supports how you want to heal. Your health depends on it.
Resources for Finding Holistic Care
Keep in mind that you may need to spend a little time researching to find the right doctor for you. There are places to look to help you find a physician with holistic training, and some doctors may meet the above requirements without having specific training or credentials.
Here are some places to start your search:
Integrative Medicine Fellowship
At the Integrative Medicine Fellowship website, you can find a list of physicians, primarily MD’s, who have completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship established by Dr. Andrew Weil. Integrative medicine is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.
Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine
Another place to look is the website for the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, where you can find a listing that includes physicians and other practitioners who have self-identified themselves as having a practice that reaffirms the importance of the relationship between practitioner and patient, focuses on the whole person, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapeutic approaches, healthcare professionals, and disciplines to achieve optimal health and healing.
Institute for Functional Medicine
Functional medicine offers a holistic perspective that addresses the underlying causes of disease, uses a systems-oriented approach, and promotes a therapeutic partnership between the patient and the doctor. The Institute for Functional Medicine website offers a listing of practitioners who have trained with the IFM, and you can search to find one in your area.
There are also a variety of websites that list practitioners who may not be board-certified MD/DO’s but who have trained in other forms of holistic medicine. These practitioners include naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, and doctors of Chinese or Ayurvedic medicine. Their training may incorporate a holistic foundation for healing as well, and you may find that they’re a good fit for your health goals.
Here are a few good websites to review:
- National Ayurvedic Medical Association
- The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians
- National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- American Chiropractic Association
- American Holistic Health Association
Word of Mouth
Since many good physicians are right in your community providing excellent care, but perhaps not on any professional websites or lists, talk to people in your local holistic community and get recommendations from others who are aligned with your definition of health and healing. Connecting with others and getting word-of-mouth recommendations may help you identify doctors who will meet your needs.
If your local hospital or a nearby medical school has an Integrative or Alternative Medicine department, you could ask for a referral. If your insurance doesn’t cover these physicians, it may be worth it to you to pay cash to see them periodically or, at the very least, to be a guide and help you access holistic care in your community. This may only involve a few visits a year, and in the long run, may be cost effective for you. My hope is that someday the insurance system will change (I think it’s coming) so that holistic physicians and other holistic practitioners become more easily accessible and covered by insurance plans everywhere.