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How to land an appointment with a sought-after doctor

Massachusetts General Hospital.
Massachusetts General Hospital. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/file 2017)

People who work at Boston’s prominent medical centers often get calls from desperate friends and relatives, like the one a Massachusetts General Hospital executive took from an old college roommate. She was seeking help for her son, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. The executive e-mailed someone she knew — Dr. David Ryan, the hospital’s well-known and well-liked chief of oncology.

The next day, a colleague of Ryan’s spent an hour discussing options with the worried family.

As a journalist covering health care, I spend a lot of time talking to hospital employees. And I often hear stories like this one. Someone wants an appointment with the breast cancer doctor from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who was interviewed on “NBC Nightly News,” the dermatologist with the six-month wait, or the highly rated internal medicine practice that is closed to new patients. Maybe you’ve made one of these calls.

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Or you might have called me. From time to time, I field complaints from readers frustrated that they can’t get in to see one of the city’s plethora of top docs. So in the spirit of making access to medical care more transparent, here are (hopefully) helpful strategies for landing an appointment with that sought-after specialist, or getting into that popular primary care practice.

If you have a connection, it’s OK to use it; most doctors are happy to help. Diane DiTullio Agostino, who has complicated chronic medical problems, was eager for a primary care doctor in the Partners HealthCare System, the Harvard-affiliated network to which her other medical providers belong, but she struck out. A good friend urged her own Mass. General internist to take on Agostino. Then Agostino added a personal touch: She dropped off a detailed description of her medical history at the doctor’s office. She was in.

Popular physicians whose practices are closed will usually accept spouses and other close relatives of longtime patients. And doctors often say yes to colleagues who ask a favor, said Dr. Inga Lennes, a lung cancer specialist at Mass. General and senior vice president for service excellence and practice improvement for the Mass. General Physicians Organization.

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“Those connections can matter, but they are often the hourlong phone call on a Saturday or the visit after the clinic is closed at 4 or 5 p.m.,’’ she said. “The regular spots I have get filled through regular channels.’’

For a scary diagnosis, seek out a reputable medical center that promises immediate access. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top-ranked oncology center that draws patients nationwide, offers next-day appointments for callers with a new cancer diagnosis. No connections necessary. “You don’t need to know someone to do this,’’ said Dr. Craig Bunnell, chief medical officer. Other hospitals are exploring similar models. Mass. General promises quick appointments for people with newly diagnosed brain tumors.

There is a caveat, though. You may not be able to get an appointment that soon with that one particular breast cancer doctor your neighbor recommended.

“We bend over backward to make an appointment for a specific physician, but you might wait longer,’’ Bunnell said. “We can see you when you want to be seen. It doesn’t mean you can see any doctor you want on any day you want.’’

It’s generally easier to get in to a great primary care practice in the suburbs. Most of Boston’s large academic medical centers also have general medical practices in surrounding cities and towns. While many of their Boston internal medicine offices are closed to new patients or have waiting lists, openings tend to be plentiful outside the city.

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Patients often believe that practices located on the hospital campus are higher quality. But that is untrue, doctors said. Physicians in a hospital’s network must have the same expertise and training no matter their location. “The connection to services at the main hospital can still be very close and tight even at primary care practices far away,’’ Lennes said.

And parking is cheaper.

Be strategic about when you contact a doctor’s office. If you’re going to beg Dr. Famous’s receptionist to squeeze you in, don’t call on Monday, Tuesday, or right after a holiday, when staff are juggling pent-up requests from current patients. If you need to, put your name on a waiting list, but don’t sit back and wait. Calling every day runs the risk of getting annoying. Check in once or twice a week.

Ask if a medical center has walk-in clinics for popular specialties with long waits for appointments like psychiatry and neurology. That is one way to get evaluated quickly.

Donate money. Almost all hospitals have special patient liaisons for donors. These employees work in development and identify specialists, schedule appointments, greet donors, accompany them to appointments, and visit them in the hospital. Executives insist donors don’t get appointments sooner than anyone else, but I have to believe a call from the development office carries weight.

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Do you really need Dr. Golden Stethoscope to treat your medical problem? Keep an open mind. If there was one message hospital executives stressed when I researched this article, it was this: Most patients do not need to see a famous doctor, or one highly rated by a magazine. “The source of that information might be suspect,’’ said Dr. Charles Morris, associate chief medical officer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “What are effectively popularity contests don’t speak to the quality of care that person delivers.’’

Junior colleagues are often just as skilled, and everyone works as a team anyway, consulting with one another.

A doctor who is traveling the world giving talks to colleagues probably has very little time to see patients. Even if you get an initial appointment with him or her, how easy will it be to develop an ongoing relationship? And their area of expertise might be narrower than you expect.

Erin McDonough, a senior vice president at the Brigham, held a similar role at New England Baptist Hospital for years. Acquaintances who needed a hip replacement or suffered spine pain called her looking for consultations with Dr. Brian McKeon, an orthopedic surgeon at the Baptist who was team physician for the Boston Celtics. But his expertise is sports medicine and sports injuries. And, as is the case with many well-known surgeons, patients generally don’t get to see him for their initial appointment, they often see his physician assistant first.

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This is one story in our new series called Help Desk, in which Globe writers seek answers to some of the many questions life poses — especially life in this particular part of the world. Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.