Even though there is an abundance of health information online, you may not find answers to specific questions related to your personal medical diagnosis or treatment. For those questions, you may want to speak to an expert other than your own doctor, who may not have the necessary expertise or latest information about your condition. The good news is that it's often easy to reach an expert-and, in many cases, that medical information is free!

Clever ways to get information from top-notch medical experts…

  • Contact a medical school. Faculty members at medical schools, such as physicians and researchers, know about the latest treatments for rare or complicated medical problems and can be good sources of referrals to doctors and hospitals that specialize in your medical condition. Over the years, I have found it relatively easy to contact medical school faculty by phone. First, check the listings of medical schools at the Web site of the Association of American Medical Colleges, www.aamc.org/medicalschools, and look for the school closest to you (in case you need to meet directly with the expert). When you call a medical school, ask for the chairperson of the department most closely related to your medical condition-for example, cardiology or endocrinology.

Insider tip: When you call, don't go into detail about your medical condition. Instead, get right to your question. For example, you may ask, "Where would you recommend I get a second opinion for this problem?"...or "Is the treatment my doctor recommended the only option?"

  • Call a teaching hospital. Because medical students are taught in these hospitals, the physicians who head the specialty departments are often considered leaders in their field. You can get a list of teaching hospitals in your area at www.bealthguideusa.org/teaching_hospitals. bom. Follow the steps described above in contacting the specific person best able to help you. Because department heads typically have busy schedules, chances are you will have to leave a message.

Insider tip: Most of these doctors have private practices, so you should be prepared to schedule an appointment if you have a complicated question or problem. But if you are looking for a referral or source of information (such as studies about a disease or treatment, the doctor or his/her staff often will get back to you with a suggestion at no charge.

  • Go to your insurance carrier. You may be surprised to learn that your insurance company may have the answer to your medical question. If you have questions about your medical care, call your Insurer's nurse/medical expert hotline. More and more insurance companies are putting in hotlines that allow you to speak to health-care practitioners directly. In addition, members of many health plans can discuss their medical conditions and treatment issues with experts such as nurses, respiratory therapists and dietitians, known as case managers or disease management specialists. Check to see if your insurer has such a program.

Are Web Sites that provide Doctor Ratings Reliable?

They can be—but it's important to check for clues to the Web site's objectivity. First, find out how a site determines the ratings. If doctors pay to be listed, the site won't be very objective. If a health insurance company sponsors the site, its ratings may be influenced by the reviewed doctors' fees. Next, examine the reviews themselves. If the ratings are anonymous, a spouse, a nurse or even the doctor might post a positive review, while a competitor could be behind a negative one. Still, it is possible to find useful information, such as how a doctor runs his/her practice. As these Web sites accumulate dozens or more ratings for each doctor, they will yield more reliable information about physicians. No Web sites give comprehensive information, but www.ucomparehealthcare.com and www.vitals. com provide a good start.

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