Who's your doctor? It's a question we all ask each other. We're all looking for the perfect physician: caring as Mother Teresa, brilliant as Einstein, dispensing cures like cotton candy.

He doesn't exist. Neither does she. The best doctors are merely like the rest of us, just trying, sometimes succeeding.

How then do you find a good, not a perfect but a competent physician, one who lives up to the best personal qualities -- warmth and a willingness to listen -- a fair share of the time?

The first step is accepting the fact that you need one. Everyone does, and we should select one at least as carefully as we choose a new car.

Many people do not -- whether out of meekness, lack of knowledge, awe of the medical profession or the wishful belief that costly doctors or hospitals know what they're doing. Some don't. And you need a good doctor to keep you away from the bad ones.

The best time to look for a personal physician is before you are sick, when you can assess each candidate coolly and slowly.

How then should you start?

Skip the Yellow Pages. They tell you nothing about quality.

As a beginning, ask friends and co-workers. If someone had a difficult problem and was satisfied with the result, that's usually a good sign.

Still, even the best doctors can't always get good results. And some not-so-good ones convince their patients that they are The Greatest, though their results may be far from that.

I went to college with a good old boy who flunked out. Years later I saw him again -- he had just graduated from medical school. His greatest asset, I was told, was not his brain but his "way with patients." I'd rather have a less sociable, smarter doctor.

Best of all, ask someone who knows the medical world. Ask a doctor, dentist, nurse or other health care professional, "Who's your doctor?" Nurses in hospitals may be the greatest experts of all -- they see many doctors at work. Pharmacists are likely to know which doctors write sensible prescriptions and don't over-prescribe.

Try phoning the chief-of-staff, chief-of-medicine or chief resident at any major hospital. Or the public relations director at a major hospital or medical school. You may have to keep trying until you get a sympathetic response, but sooner or later you should get some excellent answers.

The District of Columbia Medical Society (223-6333) and all county medical societies have referral lists. These don't tell you much about quality, but at least members are probably not pariahs or oddballs.

Check the library for the American Medical Directory or Directory of Medical Specialists.

However you get a doctor's name, ask a few questions, including:

Where did the doctor go to medical school? If he or she has graduated from any foreign school outside western Europe, check for American, Canadian or western European internship and residency.

Where did the doctor do an internship and residency? Teaching hospitals are usually best.

How long was the doctor's internship/residency period? By current standards, it should be at least three years.

Is the doctor a local medical society member? Not all good practicing doctors belong, but most do. Membership demostrates a degree of concern for the way organized medicine treats patients.

Is the doctor "board-certified"? Not all good doctors have passed the rigorous tests of the several specialty boards (family practice, internal medicine, etc.), and not all board-certified doctors practice good medicine. But it tells you that at the time of certification, at least, some experts said, "This doctor, too, is experienced and qualified."

Of what hospital staffs is the doctor a member? If none, try someone else. You need a personal doctor with one or more appointments at respected hospitals. You might also ask, "Does the doctor do any teaching?" Doctors with "clinical" (part-time, volunteer) teaching appointments are usually among the best.

Does the doctor practice alone or with others? There are fewer and fewer "solo" practitioners today, and many who do practice alone make adequate arrangements for a readily available back-up when they're away. But some don't. Doctors who normally work together tend to consult and add to each other's strengths.

Finally, you should decide what kind of doctor you want. A family physician? A general internist, a sort of adult-only family doctor? A specialist-internist, such as a cardiologist? The answer here depends on your needs.

Coming Nov. 7: What kind of doctor is best for you?