More important than anything else in the doctor-patient relationship is finding a doctor you like and can get along with.

What does "getting along with your doctor" mean?

It's hard to define the chemistry of rapport. A person expects a different relationship with his family doctor -- who is expected to have more "bedside manner" -- than with a specialist consulted once.

A good relationship will be one where you feel cared for, not exploited, in which you feel comfortable and both parties can be honest. It is easier to know when you do not get along. If you feel that things are just not right, I would recommend change, even in the middle of a course of treatment.

If you can't decide, get a second opinion. Don't be capricious, but don't feel your commitment is written in stone.

The best recommendation may be a personal one from friends who know you and the doctor they are recommending. You have an added responsibility, however, to do a little more research. You could ask a member of the medical profession whom you respect, a nurse or another doctor you use (your gynecologist or ophthalmologist, for example) for a referral.

The local medical society can help by providing information about the doctor's training, special interests, languages he speaks, whether any disciplinary actions are pending against him. The medical society may be able to answer other questions: Does the doctor make house calls, accept medical assistance, have facilities to treat handicapped persons?

So, find a doctor who can satisfy your needs -- all you will get out of a doctor who can't is frustration. Scheduling Appointments

Give the receptionist an idea of your problem so that she knows how much time to allot for you. If you feel your problem is complex, let the receptionist know and ask for more time.

One of the most frequent complaints that patients have is the amount of time they have to wait to see the doctor. If this is a problem, you might call the office an hour or so before your appointment and find out if the doctor is running on time, or how far behind he is.

If at all possible, try not to bring small children. They can be distracting, and make it difficult for doctor -- and patient -- to concentrate.

If you have a number of problems, make a list.

You'll usually be asked your past history, current medications, allergies, family history, whether you smoke or drink. don't waste time telling the doctor you take a green pill and a red: Know the names and strengths of the medications you take. Bring the bottles. This saves the doctor wading through the Physicians' Desk Reference showing you pictures of the medications until you find the right ones -- maybe.

The initial questions are simple, and they give important information. But the more time wasted on them, the less left to discuss your problem. Honesty

It is very difficult for the doctor to diagnose your complaint if you don't tell him the whole truth. If your complaint is a cough and you smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, don't say you only smoke occasionally. If you have contracted venereal disease, say so. The doctor is there to help, not judge you. He can't know what your concerns are unless you tell him.

Doctors don't work well under the premise that what's wrong is for you to know and for him to find out. Ask questions

Know what is wrong with you in terms you understand. How did you get it and how can it be prevented?

Know what you are taking and why. What are the major side effects you should be aware of? Will there be an interaction with the medicine you're already on?

If your doctor won't -- or can't -- answer these questions, ask yourself if you're at the right place.

Before you have any procedure done, know why it is being done. The more involved the procedure, the more you should know. What are the alternatives? The risks?

Ask . . . ask . . . ask.

Few situations are so urgent that you can't wait a while to make up your mind. You might want a second opinion. Discuss it with your family doctor and get his advice. A second opinion should always be by an independent physician -- not a partner in the same practice.

And remember: No doctor is God. When a person is ill, he longs for a parental, omnipotent figure to take care of him, someone who can "fix it all up." Doctors, unfortunately, don't know it all and can't fix it all up. Some problems can't be solved. There is no solution, as in crossword puzzles, to many of life's problems. This may be harder for most doctors -- who tend to think in terms of diagnoses/solutions -- to accept than it is for patients.

I would want my own doctor to be comfortable admitting, "I don't know. I'll either look it up or send you to someone who may know." Finances

You may not like the warts on your leg, but is it worth $50 to have them removed for purely cosmetic reasons? If you can't pay the full fee, say so. Set up a payment plan. Very few doctors will let financial considerations prevent you from getting the care you need -- so long as you are open about it.

Be an informed consumer of medical care: Discuss costs with the doctor or office manager.

It would be wonderful, of course, if the people we depend on were always predictable, kind, considerate, helpful, patient and never short-tempered.

Doctors, unfortunately, have bad days like anyone else. But if your doctor always has a bad day, reread the beginning of this story.

Finally, as we all know, illness and worry are not confined to 9-5. And it is -- frankly -- difficult to give advice on this matter. (Particularly when it could be me getting a call at 3 a.m. Sunday.)

There are times when things are not life-threatening emergencies, yet the feeling is they can't wait. The doctor -- there I've said it -- should be called. The earlier a person calls, of course, the better (granted, no one is at their most rational when sick or worried).

Because your doctor does need some leisure time, you may get an associate on duty. And just as you have a responsibility to try and consider your doctor, he has one to you in making provisions for off-hours.

Now that you know basically what to look for in a good doctor-patient relationship, find a doctor while you're well. Don't wait until you're sick and less able to make a sound evaluation.