Let’s face it, when it comes to staying healthy, an apple a day just won’t cut it. Whether you’re a Southwest Florida newcomer or just a newcomer to your insurance company, tracking down a local doctor who meets your needs—and the needs of your healthcare plan—requires a thorough search.

“Sarasota has excellent physicians,” says Intercoastal Medical Group’s Dr. John Steele, who oversees the hiring of Intercoastal physicians for both Manatee and Sarasota counties. Of course, you have to know where to look for those excellent physicians, and you have to know what to look for.

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Where you look starts right here. You could begin with our exclusive listing of top doctors in Sarasota and Manatee, which is compiled by national medical publishing company Castle Connolly and is available in this issue. The list features area physicians at the forefront of their specialties, lauded by their peers and then carefully screened by Castle Connolly. But bear in mind: This is the cream of an outstanding crop of local doctors. Sarasota and Manatee counties boast many other talented physicians with satisfied patients.

What you look for depends on who you are. “If you’re over 65, you find somebody who’s board certified and near your home,” Steele advises. “If you’re under 65, the first thing you do is find out who’s covered in your insurance.”

Next step: Look for someone who is affiliated with a local hospital. Doctors requesting affiliation “are screened very heavily,” says Steele. “The hospital staff validates everything.” To join a hospital, a doctor must undergo a rigorous examination that includes background checks, contact with each previous place of employment, professional references and verification of proficiency in any procedure the physician wants to offer. In terms of finding qualified, competent physicians to choose from, the hospital’s credentialing department has already done the legwork for patients.

Pat Driscoll, marketing director for Doctor’s Hospital of Sarasota, points to the variety of ways hospitals make their physician information available. Hospital Web sites should be your first stop, “and because the information is online, it’s up to date,” she says. “You can see a photo, find out about credentials, education, everything.”

In addition to the Internet, friends and family can be a good source of recommendations, says Steele. “Or some people just go through the [phone] book.”

For a more interactive search, “Look in the Yellow Pages under physician referral,” says Driscoll. Referral lines allow you to work with a real person to coordinate your personal preferences, like the doctor’s certification and education, with practical realities, like availability and insurance restrictions. “You can describe what you’re looking for. They’ll give you names and numbers for physicians that they know are taking patients,” says Driscoll.

If you have preferences for a doctor’s credentials, specialties, or even where he or she went to school, a referral line can steer you in the right direction. And when time is a factor, as it so often is, referral lines can often point you to a doctor who accepts walk-ins.

Patients should note that the lines are generally manned by customer service personnel, not medical professionals, but in most cases nurses are available if callers need help determining their medical needs. Susan Shapiro, a registered nurse for more than 25 years, oversees nurses who help answer questions for 24-hour referral lines in Southwest Florida, including those for Doctor’s Hospital of Sarasota, Englewood Community Hospital and Blake Medical Center in Bradenton. “We have information in our system on [the doctors’] background, education, clinical interest, what age they treat, when they can see patients,” she says. “Board certification is important to the majority of people—and we can explain what various certifications mean. A lot of women these days want a female doctor—especially when it comes to women’s health issues. Some people say, ‘I want a doctor who’s trained at Ivy League schools,’ or ‘I want a D.O. [doctor of osteopathy].’”

Many patients don’t know what type of doctor they need, Shapiro notes. “If they’re above 18, internal medicine doctors are good; family doctors are just as great, and they treat the children,” she explains. “If you call and say, ‘I need somebody for my back or my neck or my knee,’ we’re able to help direct the caller to the correct type of physician.”

Newcomers may only be looking for a Florida doctor to keep track of their medical history, in which cases primary care is the way to go. Primary care physicians play an important role in preventive medicine and can monitor the various medications and treatments prescribed to a patient by multiple specialists.

Unfortunately, while referral lines will tell you who’s accepting new patients, primary care doctors are hard to come by in this area. Only 20 percent of local physicians practice primary care, compared to a national average that’s closer to 40 percent, according to Marc Lazarus, president of Sarasota-based R & L Medical Services.

The culprits, says Steele, are Florida’s malpractice rates—the highest in the country—combined with Sarasota’s rock-bottom Medicare reimbursements, which are lower than nearby Fort Myers. And Medicare is particularly important in Sarasota, where nearly 30 percent of the population is over 65—more than double the national average, says Lazarus.

Primary care is not the most lucrative practice to begin with, and short of seeing more patients—always an unpopular idea—physicians have a hard time increasing their income. “What does a physician have to sell beyond expertise? There are only 24 hours in a day,” says Lazarus. “And you would want them to get some sleep.”

In the end, when it comes to finding the right physician for you, “The best thing to do is schedule a visit,” says Steele. “You’ll never be happy unless you like the person.” Unlike credentials, compatibility can only be measured face to face.

In order to get the best care from their physician, patients must be comfortable enough to tell the doctor exactly where it hurts—and to trust the doctor’s recommendations. “Some people like [a physician] who’s obsessive compulsive; others want someone more relaxed,” says Steele, adding that some doctors have even been known to reject patients because incompatible personalities would affect the doctor’s ability to gather information—and the patient’s willingness to be treated. “Communication is the most important thing,” he says. “You have to be able to ask them questions. You need someone you can communicate with and follow their advice.”

Patience is key, says Driscoll. “It may take a few tries.”

Sue Richards appreciates getting unlimited time and attention from Dr. Carlos Caballero.

At 84, Sue Richard drives, walks with a cane, and lives by herself at the Sarasota Bay Club. And she credits much of that mobility to her doctor, Carlos Caballero of Private Physician Services.

“I’ve been with Dr. Caballero for 10 years,” Richard says. “He’s seen me through everything.” Richard goes to Caballero, an internist, for medical check-ups and heart-related health problems, but also praises the doctor for his attentiveness to her late husband, Jerry, who had to go on dialysis because his kidneys failed. “One Saturday, he became quite ill and had to be taken to the hospital,” she explains. “I called Dr. Caballero, who was in Miami for the weekend, and he told me that he would be back in Sarasota in three hours. He’s always there when I need him.”

In fact, Caballero’s entire practice, which offers concierge medical service, is based on being there for his clients. His 300 patients—ranging in age from 16 to 95—pay a yearly fee of $5,000 to have almost unlimited access to their doctors. A graduate of Harvard and Stanford who worked at another office before opening Private Physician Services, one of only a few concierge practices in the state, Caballero says the set-up allows him to do his job the way it should be done.

“Opening this practice gave me the opportunity to do a better job as a physician,” he explains. “Our patients aren’t just a number; they’re well-known.”

Richard, whose husband ultimately decided to come off dialysis and passed away, takes great comfort from that. “Dr. Caballero sits and talks to me,” she says. “I never feel rushed. He explains everything. And he was marvelous with my husband.”

“It’s simple,” Caballero says. “I’ll say it 100 times over: I love my job.”—Megan McDonald

After years of painful rheumatoid arthritis, Lois Chase finds new hope through Dr. John Hand.

Lois Chase used to be a gymnast and coached tennis for years. And she and her husband love taking cross-country road trips in their motor home. But the 73-year-old Chase has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since 1978, and the condition has affected every aspect of that active life.

“It’s very painful,” Chase says. “My hands were so bad that I couldn’t even open doors. Then one day I met a lady on the beach who told me about Dr. John Hand and how he made a difference in her life.”

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that can lead to progressive joint destruction, deformity and chronic pain,” Hand, of Schofield, Bright and Hand Orthopedics, explains. “Treating a patient with a rheumatoid hand is both high-risk and high-reward; if you’re not careful, someone who has a fair amount of deformity but a hand that functions well may [after surgery] have a hand that looks better but functions worse. If it’s successful, however, you can make a significant impact in the patient’s life.”

Hand operated on both of Chase’s hands, performing surgery on the right one first and the left two years ago. “In a case like Lois’, I use rubber knuckles, which are made of a plastic-like, rubber material,” he says. “The goal of the surgery is to improve pain and realign the digits to improve function. So we’ll replace a patient’s joints with elastic implants and realign them so that the joints act as spacers between the bones.”

“I didn’t realize doctors could even do this,” Chase says of her new joints. “It’s a long recovery process. But now my hands feel like they’re mine again. He’s given me my life back.” —Megan McDonald

Jane Scannell’s skin cancer has a positive prognosis after treatment by dermatologist Dr. Susan Weinkle.

Jane Scannell is a busy woman. In addition to her everyday routine, she likes to travel and takes care of her mother. So it’s not surprising that, after moving to Sarasota three years ago, she put her own well-being on the back burner for awhile.

“When I was younger, I used to get sunburned all the time,” Scannell, 68, says. “About 25 years ago, I had what was diagnosed as an inner cyst in my nose. I had surgery, but had to repeat the process a few years later. When I went to see the dermatologist after moving here, he told me my cyst looked like basal cell carcinoma and did a biopsy. The results came back positive and I was referred to Dr. Susan Weinkle.”

Basal cell carcinoma, or BCC, is the most common form of cancer and is generally caused by overexposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Weinkle, a Stanford-trained dermatologist and skin cancer expert, treated the disease through Mohs surgery.

“With Mohs surgery, you excise the skin cancer and small sections around it,” Weinkle explains. “The tissue is then put on a cryostat, frozen, stained and looked at under the microscope to see if there’s residual cancer. If there is, you go back into the operating room and keep taking more tissue until all the cancer is out. The cancer is taken out, pathology is performed and the defect is repaired all in one day, in one spot, and in one office under local anesthesia.”

Scannell is thrilled with the results. “I’m doing beautifully,” she says. “And Dr. Weinkle is a lovely person. She doesn’t rush you, and she follows up and explains things. She’s a petite little dynamo.” —Megan McDonald

Thanks to a quick-thinking team of doctors, Gary Boylan walked out of Sarasota Memorial Hospital seven days after a heart attack.

Port Charlotte resident Gary Boylan is generally healthy, which is why, when he started feeling ill on a Sunday afternoon in March, he asked his wife, Pat, to take him to Englewood Community Hospital. “When we got to the emergency room,” he says, “I felt better, so my wife asked me if I wanted to talk a walk before we went inside. She turned to lock the car, and when she turned back around I was lying on the ground [in] cardiac arrest.”

A team from Englewood rushed Boylan, 60, into the E.R., charged his heart seven times to get it pumping again, and called Dr. Stephen Culp at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where Boylan was airlifted. Culp, an interventional cardiologist at Heart Specialists of Sarasota and a graduate of Yale and the University of Vermont Medical School, treated Boylan, who was comatose when he arrived.

“When it comes to a heart attack, time is muscle,” Culp explains. “We installed an intra-aortic balloon pump to support his blood pressure, performed diagnostic cardiac catheterization, and inserted a stent to revascularize the left descending artery.”

Boylan walked out of the hospital seven days later, and both patient and doctor credit that to the teams at both hospitals. “A study recently said that [heart] patients receive worse care on the weekends,” Culp says. “That’s not Sarasota. Our employees give up their personal time to be there for their patients.”

“There was an incredible sensitivity in communication by Dr. Culp,” Boylan says. “He was there to take care of me but also to keep [my wife and sons] informed.”

“The best part of my job is being involved in a very intense way in the lives of patients of all backgrounds,” Culp says. “It enriches my life to know them.” —Megan McDonald