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Can you trust your doctor? 7 signs they're a good fit — and 5 that they're not

Finding a doctor you feel comfortable with can be a challenge. Here's how to know whether you're on the right track.
/ Source: TODAY

Having a primary care doctor you can stay in regular contact with is an important part of taking care of your health. But many people have a hard time finding a primary care provider who listens and takes their concerns seriously.

So, what does a good relationship with a doctor actually look like?

You should be able to trust your doctor and feel comfortable enough to tell them things that, potentially, you wouldn't tell anyone else, Dr. F. Perry Wilson, associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine and author of "How Medicine Works and When It Doesn’t: Learning Who to Trust to Get and Stay Healthy," tells

"That's a very unique relationship in the world. It doesn't come easily, and it doesn't usually happen at the first visit," he explains, "which is why building a relationship with a primary care doctor over time is really important."

On your quest to find a doctor who can help you manage your health and actually feels like a good fit personally, there are some good and bad signs to look out for.

Signs you and your doctor have a good relationship:

You feel like a team.

The No. 1 thing to look for is "a sense that you're on the same team," Wilson says. "There should be a camaraderie between you and your physician."

In medicine, that's called the "therapeutic alliance," he explains. "It's like we're joining together in a battle against disease." It's a concept that can be hard to describe in concrete terms, but people generally know it when they feel it.

They let you talk.

A recent study in the Journal of General Medicine found that only a third of doctors regularly ask patients open-ended questions about why they made the appointment. And, when doctors do ask, they interrupt their patients, on average, within 11 seconds.

Of course, doctors are under tremendous pressure to get through visits quickly and see the next patient, Wilson says. But interrupting a patient is not the way to build a quality relationship with them.

They have to be willing to listen to you, he says. "And that's an important sign that they actually care about that therapeutic alliance."

They know — and share — the science.

"It is not a trick question to ask your doctor, 'What is the data that supports this?'" Wilson says. You should feel comfortable asking about your doctor's reason for putting you on a particular medication or suggesting a change in behavior.

They may have to refresh their memory, but "they should know the data" and be willing to share it with you, he says. 

They acknowledge uncertainty.

It's always reassuring to have a doctor who seems confident in their advice, but the truth is medicine isn't always an exact science. A good doctor will be upfront with you when there's any uncertainty.

The goal is "acknowledging that we're working together and that there is trial and error in medicine," Wilson explains. "It doesn't mean medicine is bad. It just means it's an imperfect science because humans are complicated, and medications and other interventions are complicated." 

When they're wrong or new information changes things, they'll admit it.

"All of us, as we get care throughout our lifetimes, are going to have misdiagnoses," Wilson says. "We're going to have therapies attempted that are ineffective or even potentially harmful."

That's why it's crucial for doctors to build trust by being willing to admit when things didn't work out the way they expected. And, with a good relationship, patients can understand and appreciate the honesty enough for it to strengthen the alliance, he says.

They accept your decisions about your health.

You and your doctor should be collaborating to manage your health, but you can still do your own research with second opinions and reputable sources online, Wilson says.

And, at the end of the day, you might disagree with your doctor on the best course of action.

"If you decide to do something or to not take a medication that's recommended, not only (is your doctor) ethically obligated to accept that, it should not impact the relationship," Wilson explains. "A good doctor can separate those personal decisions from the therapeutic alliance."

But they'll put their foot down when it comes to your safety.

The only exception to the above point is when your doctor thinks you might do something that could be genuinely harmful. Of course, they still can't ultimately make you do or not do something, Wilson says, but they may be more explicit about their disagreement.

It can be a tough conversation to have, Wilson says, but "if you've got a solid foundation, it's not a conversation that needs to end the therapeutic alliance — it can actually it can actually strengthen it."

Disagreeing with your doctor and exploring the reasons why can open up new conversations and help you understand each other a little more.

Warning signs you should change doctors:

The truth is that we usually don’t get as many options as we’d like when choosing a provider. In fact, about 10% of women and 20% of men in the U.S. don’t have a primary care doctor, according to an analysis of 2021 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Insurance coverage, health literacy, and where you live all play into that systemic problem, Wilson says. And it’s fueling a rise in medical misinformation — especially on social media, he adds.

“People aren’t getting the care they need in the current medical system, so they are turning elsewhere,” Wilson explains. “They’re turning to Facebook and anyone who seems like they’re listening. And that’s a failure on our part; that’s a failure on physicians’ part.”

That's why improving access to quality care and maintaining trusting relationships between doctors and patients can be helpful in stemming the tide of misinformation.

Whether you're seeking out information from a doctor, another health professional or the wild world of the internet, keep these warning signs in mind. If you notice someone exhibiting these red flags, you probably should not follow their health advice.

  • They perpetuate a "one simple thing" approach. "We like simple things, we like quick and easy fixes," Wilson says. "But the truth of the matter is that there are no real quick fixes in medicine." Whether it's a supposed cure for cancer, treatment for depression or an easy way to lose weight quickly, be skeptical of claims you see online.
  • They make guarantees with certainty. "There are no guarantees in medicine," Wilson says. Claims that you're guaranteed to feel better projects "false confidence, and that is used for marketing purposes," he explains.
  • They act like they possess "secret knowledge." Be wary of social media posts that imply doctors are keeping some medical knowledge from you. "All of us as humans and social beings want to be part of a group of a few select people. There's a self-affirming nature there," Wilson says. But this is really just a tactic to grab your attention.
  • They trigger strong emotions. Going through a health journey can be emotional, but the information you get about a particular condition or issue shouldn't be, Wilson says. Any online posts that trigger strong feelings like fear or anger or those that validate deep suspicions you have about the world may be operating from a disingenuous place.
  • They won't share the source of their information. If a doctor or a post on social media isn't clear about where they're getting their information or if their source doesn't seem reputable, that's a major red flag, Wilson says. He recommends patients start with websites for major professional societies, like the American Heart Association or the American Cancer Society.

Finding a doctor you can trust certainly isn't always easy. Your doctor should listen to you, and you should feel like you're on the same team in managing your health, Wilson says. Medicine can't always prevent pain or disease, but "the victory we have is in reducing suffering during the time that we have here and we can do that if we work together."