Recently a patient came to me for a second opinion on the ulcers that had plagued him off and on for more than a decade. His regular doctor had been prescribing the once standard treatment—liquid antacids and an assortment of prescription pills—to ease the irritation caused by gastric acid in his stomach. But the treatment had failed to provide long-term relief.
When I told him that research in the last several years has shown that bacteria called Helicobacter pylori are responsible for 95% of ulcers like his, and that with proper antibiotic therapy most people can be cured, he was both relieved and upset. He asked me why his original doctor hadn’t tried him on the new therapy, and I told him the truth: His doctor probably didn’t know about it.
With doctors’ hectic schedules and the growing volume of medical research, many physicians aren’t able to stay abreast of the all latest medical developments. And while being on the cutting edge of research isn’t the be-all and end-all of doctoring—many old therapies and tests are still standard tools—a doctor who doesn’t stay current risks missing opportunities to help his or her patients.
Here are a few suggestions for determining whether your doctor is up-to-date.
Check on when the doctor was last certified or recertified by a specialty board. To be board certified, doctors in each specialty, including primary-care doctors such as family physicians and general internists, must complete training pro-gram and pass a rigorous examination that requires up-to-date knowledge. Not all good doctors are board certified, however. Some older doctors, for example, may have trained in specialties before board certification existed. But for doctors trained in the last 10 to 20 years, board certification is fast becoming a minimum standard.
Also, beware of the term “board eligible.” A doctor who’s just finished training in a specialty is considered eligible to take the exam. It’s reasonable to use the term for the first year or two after training, but some doctors who never pass the exam use the term indefinitely. The best way to find out if your doctor is board certified is to call the American Board of Medical Specialists in Evanston, Ill., 800-776-CERT.
• Ask how the doctor completes the requirement for continuing medical education. (This is especially important if a long time has passed since training.) All states require that doctors earn a certain number of continuing education credits by attending classes on recent medical developments. But the requirements don’t stipulate which courses, and there are differences in quality. Those sponsored by medical schools tend to be rigorous, for example, while those underwritten by drug companies are more likely to have a marketing agenda.
• Find out if your doctor teaches or does research at a local medical school. Medical school faculty members are more likely than community doctors to have current knowledge, at least in the area of their specialty.
• Get a second opinion. Finding out what another doctor thinks about your problem can be an excellent way to assess your doctor’s knowledge.
Good doctors shouldn’t feel threatened by second opinions.
• Get smart about your health. With expanding access to medical information through magazines, books, self-help groups and, increasingly, computer on-line services, consumers now have more information available than ever. Take advantage of it. The more you know about your health, the better you’ll be able to evaluate your doctor.
NOTE: This article was first seen on the AlivebyNature site.