What Makes a Great N.J. Doctor? Inside Jersey\'s Top Docs list
What Makes a Great N.J. Doctor? Inside Jersey's Top Docs list
By Inside Jersey Staff
September 09, 2009
What Makes a Great Doctor?
Wanted: a brilliant and caring person who is well versed in medical science.
Seeking a good listener, someone with an open mind and a gentle touch.
Know-it-alls and anyone quick to judge need not apply.
Must love people. A sense of humor is a plus.
Imagine placing this help wanted ad the next time you're looking for a doctor. Then think
about the doctors whom you entrust with your care. Would they all qualify for the job?
At a time when overhauling health care is part of the national conversation, identifying a
great doctor is more challenging than ever. Most insured people in HMOs have a primary
care gatekeeper, seeing specialists only if they are in a designated insurance network.
Then there are the 86.7 million Americans who were without insurance at some point
over the past two years, according to a study by the consumer health advocacy group
Families USA. For those people, "beggars can't be choosers" becomes the unfortunate
rule of the day.
Even for those of us who are insured, it's not uncommon to wait, and wait, in a doctor's
office only to get a precious few moments of his or her time.
So how do you know if your doctor is one of the great ones? And in a matter as critical as
your family's health care, how can you be sure that your doctor is right for you?
"There's more than one thing that makes a doctor great," says Robert L. Johnson, interim
dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in Newark.
"Of course, there's the knowledge base. We have to be sure we train people in the
medical science needed to diagnose and treat the patient."
That's a given, says Johnson, who still practices his specialty, adolescent and young adult
medicine, once a week at a University Hospital clinic. But looking beyond the obvious is
where the rubber really hits the road.
"There's a humanistic application of the knowledge we have. When that's in place, it
makes for a more likely correct diagnosis and motivates the patient to follow the doctor's
recommendations and get better faster."
The triad of science, humanism and communication skills is what it takes to separate the
good from the great. And that combination can't always be learned in medical school.
"Medical school is harder now than it's ever been," says Johnson. "But knowing how to
bring humanity to your practice isn't something you learn on a computer. I learned from
mentors, great physicians whom I wanted to be like. The things we all remember most
are the things we learn by example."
The way Joe Reichman sees it, the "art" of medicine is as important as the science. As
president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, the oldest society of its kind in the
country, Reichman represents some 9,000 physicians across all medical disciplines.
"The science has changed, the technology has changed, but the art of medicine has not,"
says the Gibbsboro resident. "We must have great communication skills to distill
scientific information for our patients in a compassionate way. A great doctor sees each
patient as an individual, not a diagnosis."
"A great doctor listens," says Anne Jenkins, a 52-year-old North Arlington resident. "I
live in my body 24/7 and I have more experience with it than a doctor could ever have."
Jenkins says she has been brushed off, spoken down to and had conditions misdiagnosed,
including hypothyroidism and sleep apnea. But that was in the past.
"I now see doctors who involve me in the decision making process and consider my point
of view. My doctors know that we will be working as a team. That makes me feel
confident that I am getting the care I deserve and need."
A great doctor is never threatened by a patient's questions or need to understand.
"If you walk out of the room and don't understand your diagnosis, what the prescription is
for, what you're supposed to do, there's a fundamental problem," says Johnson. "I hear
that doctors don't have enough time to do that, and it's not true. I see 20 to 25 patients on
a Saturday morning. That's a lot of patients. And with each one of them I can do that. I
look them in the eye, sit down with them, make sure they know what's going on."
John J. Connolly, president and CEO of Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., which publishes
consumer medical guides and compiles lists of regional Top Doctors annually (including
the Top Doctor listings in this month's issue of IJ) believes a top doctor is "a physician
with excellent medical education and clinical training, someone who has both breadth
and depth of experience in his/her medical specialty. He or she needs to be open-minded
and curious, aware of new trends in medicine as well as willing to study and evaluate
new advances as they become available.
"A top doctor also is someone who understands the responsibilities inherent in the doctor-
patient relationship regarding empathy, communication, patient education, and
sensitivities to the specific and unique needs of the patient who is entrusting their health
and well-being to their doctor," adds Connolly.
Before founding checkMD, a vetting website that gives consumers information about
physicians, dentists, hospitals and pharmacies, Jonathan Black spent more than a decade
credentialing doctors. His job was to run extensive background checks to mitigate risk for
hospitals such as the University Medical Center at Princeton and Duke University
Hospital. In his experience ferreting out bad doctors and listening to patient stories, one
thing kept surfacing.
"The patients would always say that they just didn't feel right. Early on, they'd have a
sense that something was wrong but because 'he was the doctor,' they didn't question the
treatment." While Black believes most doctors are competent health care professionals
who take their Hippocratic oath seriously, he also believes patients need to feel
empowered and involved in their own health care. If they feel rushed or unsure, it's
important to stop and regroup.
"Medical mistakes kill nearly 100,000 people every year," says Black, citing a study by
the Institute of Medicine. "We research the new car we're going to buy more than we do
the doctor who is taking care of our health."
Gil Bashe has a tested strategy for being sure he and his family have access to top docs.
Bashe, who heads health care public relations for Makovsky + Company, a New York
based communications firm, believes that to get the best doctor, you have to be a top-
shelf patient. "That doesn't mean compliant or subservient, that means best equipped,"
says Bashe, a Metuchen resident.
What he recommends is to look beyond the insurance network.
"Go out and find yourself the best, the greatest, doctor that deals with your active
condition. Ask other doctors you respect for names. If they're out of your network, they'll
still see you for an office consultation."
While this might cost $150 to $400, Bashe sees it as a cost-effective strategy to ensure
that all bases are covered.
"A primary care doctor may be skillful, but he also may have a pet approach to solving a
problem. By consulting with the very best doctor I can find, I can get deep insight that
allows me to have a more informed conversation with my primary caregiver."
As someone with decades of personal experience with physicians, Rosalind Citrin, 72, of
West Orange, has heartfelt opinions about what makes a doctor truly great. Citrin's first
husband became chronically ill when he was 23 and she was 22. Until he died at age 60,
the emotional and financial strains of his illness were a part of her life and the lives of
their two children.
Now remarried, Citrin doesn't hesitate when asked what makes a doctor truly great. "A
great doctor is a great listener. And they also have to consider the many lives touched by
their patient's chronic condition."
What we crave from our doctor is beyond medical diagnosis, Citrin says. At a time when
we are at our most vulnerable, we want to be understood without being judged. "A great
doctor comprehends the full extent of the human condition, the human traits, some of
which people are not proud of," she says. "A great doctor will never make a patient feel
"The physical presence and the words of a healer are as important as their knowledge
base," says Bashe, an Israeli American who worked as a combat medic in the Israeli
army. "Being viewed as a healer when you're in dangerous situations changed my
perspective about doctors," he says.
To Bashe, a great doctor is brilliant and compassionate, humble and empathetic. "A truly
brilliant physician sees a patient as a person, not just a symptom. "A great doctor knows
he is a healer," he says.
"He is healing a person, not just working on a kidney."