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Treatment // July 24, 2017 MAAC Staff

How to Choose a Doctor for Your Cancer Care

Finding a doctor is a huge decision, even when you are relatively healthy. Everyone has a fairly long list of traits they want to see in their doctor. For instance, you want a person you can trust, someone who is thorough and respectful of any health concerns you might bring up.

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, finding the right doctor can be even more critical. Your life is essentially in their hands, and it can be incredibly stressful deciding what doctor or institution will be the best for your care and survival. While there’s no clear cut way to make such an important decision, here are some tips to keep in mind when choosing your doctor.

How to Research Potential Doctors

Diving into research can easily lead to information overload. Finding and learning about all the hospitals and cancer clinics that specialize in your type of cancer, in addition to all the individual doctors, can quickly become overwhelming. You may find yourself swimming in options with no idea how to narrow down the list.

With rare cancers like mesothelioma, however, the process can be even more challenging because there are less specialists available than for a more common cancer. Finding a clinic that’s equipped to treat mesothelioma in a location near you can be extremely difficult. The smaller selection of viable treatment centers makes the research process that much more critical to ensure a mesothelioma patient can receive the best care possible.

Upon learning your diagnosis, a good place to start would be recommendations from the doctor who diagnosed you. If they’re not an expert in your kind of cancer, they’ll likely be able to recommend some oncologists who specialize in that type or provide options for cancer clinics in your area.

Understanding your treatment options may also help narrow down the search. For many patients, there are three primary kinds of doctors that may work with them: medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and surgical oncologists. Medical oncologists have specialized training in all kinds of cancer treatment, like chemotherapy and surgery, as well as more targeted therapies. They will provide supportive care and coordinate with any specialists working on the case. Radiation and surgical oncologists have specialized training in those respective fields of treatment. The kind of oncologist you work with will depend on the treatment you need.

If you need help starting your search, the American Medical Association created a tool called Doctor Finder. The app has over 800,000 licensed physicians all over the country, and allows you to search by location, for specific physicians, and by speciality. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) also provides a directory of oncologists called Find a Cancer Doctor, and includes ASCO members from around the world.

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Considering a Doctor’s Background

After compiling a list of potential doctors, it’s time to begin the difficult process of narrowing down the list. A big consideration when deciding on a doctor should be their medical background. Though it can be confusing to differentiate the programs among colleges, this research can be beneficial even to get a sense of their training and experience. But if the prestige of a medical program is an important aspect of your decision, US News publishes a list of the top medical schools in the country each year that may help you.

For example, the 2018 list shows Harvard University, Stanford University and John Hopkins University as the best medical schools focused on research. Many believe selecting a doctor that attended one of these top medical schools indicates students who were the best of the best. These schools are typically more selective, and may have more rigorous training as the students go through the program. Again, how this impacts your decision will mostly depend on personal preference.

Experts in the healthcare field consider a doctor’s board certifications as the best indicator for their competency and the quality of care you will receive. A medical board certification shows a doctor demonstrates an exceptional level of knowledge and care in a particular specialty. To become certified, a doctor undergoes rigorous testing and peer evaluation by other medical experts within that specialty. A doctor may be certified in more than one board, like the American Board of Surgery and the American Board of Thoracic Surgery.

The American Board of Medical Specialties can help you research the certifications of the doctors included on your list with their own tool. Their directory allows you to search for a particular doctor, specialty, or just by location to find certified physicians.

Thinking of the Medical Facility

Another aspect to keep in mind when considering a doctor is where they work. Some doctors may be affiliated with a few different hospitals, centers or medical universities, while others work with one medical facility. Doctors may also have admitting privileges for other hospitals even if they do not work there, meaning they can send a patient to another facility for diagnostic or treatment services if needed.

Talk to your current doctor and staff at the facility about their recommendations for hospitals and cancer clinics. They may be able to recommend a facility that has experience treating your type of cancer and be able to comment on the overall patient experience and staff there.

When researching cancer centers, there are a several resources that may help you evaluate the quality of care. The Commission on Cancer, which is a program of the American College of Surgeons, approves facilities with proven exceptional abilities in cancer diagnosis and treatment. It currently has about 1,500 cancer centers approved. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is another to keep in mind, as it recognizes different levels of cancer centers (like comprehensive care versus a smaller, more basic center). The NCI works with 70 centers around the country, many of which are affiliated with universities.

Your search may also be narrowed by determining what your health insurance will cover. Sometimes it can be difficult to find a specialist that’s in-network, but it’s an important financial aspect to consider especially with the rising costs of treatment.

Making the Decision

Choosing the right doctor isn’t an easy decision, and it shouldn’t be. Take the time to research doctors and medical facilities that are equipped to treat your kind of cancer, as well as interact with the healthcare team that would be working with you.

After your research, you should consider calling the facility to talk with the staff and learn more before scheduling a visit. While choosing the right doctor is important, you’ll also be working closely with a lot of the staff at the facility. You want to make sure they will also be friendly, respectful and efficient in their work. Your experience with them during an initial phone call and a first visit can ensure that you feel comfortable and feel like you’ll be taken well care of.

At the end of the day, all of your research will help you make an educated decision, but you also must trust your instincts. Beyond considering a doctor’s background and experience, the facilities and staff, you need to pick the doctor that feels right for you. In the end, the extra effort and careful consideration will be worth it.