How to Choose a Dermatologist

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Before you go for that cosmetic procedure or acne treatment, you'll want to know how to choose a dermatologist. Here's some advice on what to look for.

Board Certification

Any doctor can claim to be a skin specialist. To become a dermatologist, a doctor must spend at least three years after medical school studying disorders of the skin, hair, and nails. Dermatologists are also trained in skin surgeries and other procedures.

After completing dermatology training, the doctor will usually sit for a comprehensive exam called a "board exam." These exams are given by the American Board of Dermatology, which sets the standards for what a competent dermatologist ought to know. If the doctor passes the exam, he or she is officially "board certified" as a dermatologist.

Board certification isn't a guarantee that a doctor will be a good dermatologist. But it does show that the doctor completed the appropriate training and was knowledgeable enough to pass the exam. You can check to see if a doctor is board certified at the web site of the American Board of Dermatology.

Area of Expertise

When you're trying to figure out how to choose a dermatologist, don't forget to check the doctor's area of expertise. Most dermatologists can handle most problems, but some have extra certifications for special areas of dermatology. The specialist certifications are:

  • Pediatric Dermatology
  • Clinical and Laboratory Dermatological Immunology
  • Dermatopathology

In addition to these certifications, many doctors choose to concentrate on areas of dermatology that are especially interesting to them. A doctor might become known for working with allergy patients, or people with cancer, or teens with severe acne. Or she might be the local cosmetic expert, with a waiting room full of women waiting for laser hair removal. When you call to make an appointment, tell the nurse what you need and make sure the doctor's practice is right for you.

Attitude

A dermatologist can be the most knowledgeable physician in the world, but if he has a lousy bedside manner he's not really a good doctor. Look for a doctor who listens to what you have to say. Doctors who seem rushed or inattentive may not work with you to find the best treatment. A good dermatologist will listen to your questions and do his best to answer. And he will talk to you in plain English, not complicated medical terms.

Ethics

Dermatology can be a very lucrative specialty. In addition to treating skin diseases, many dermatologists offer cosmetic procedures. These services, such as wrinkle treatments and laser hair removal, usually aren't covered by insurance. Some dermatologists also sell skin care creams and acne treatments.

There's nothing wrong with charging for cosmetic procedures, or even selling a skin-care line, if the treatments work and patients leave happy. Unfortunately, a few dermatologists are more interested in selling services than in giving good patient care. Choose a dermatologist who doesn't push you to buy anything. If you're feeling pressured, it's time to switch doctors.

Ambiance

What does the doctor's office look like? Surprisingly, the décor of the office doesn't tell you much about how to choose a dermatologist. Some of the most well-respected experts work in university-affiliated offices that haven't been renovated in years. Others have fancy offices in spa-like settings.

What you should look for is a clean office and waiting room with a friendly, helpful, and well-organized staff. You need to be able to trust them not to lose track of your appointments or, worse, your chart or your test results.

Cost

Medical care at the dermatologist's office is usually covered by insurance. If you're uninsured, let the doctor know. A good doctor will work with you to choose generic medicines and keep your out-of-pocket costs down.

Insurance almost never pays for cosmetic procedures like hair removal or wrinkle treatments. Prices vary significantly from doctor to doctor and from place to place, so shopping around can make a difference. The staff may not want to give you a price over the phone (it's considered unprofessional), but if you're polite about it you should be able to get a ballpark figure.

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How to Choose a Dermatologist