First, you need to determine what kind of services you'll be needing or desiring. These days there are not only many veterinary practices to choose from, there are also choices on what type of practice. Are you more comfortable with traditional or holistic approaches? Will you be needing a specialist? Would you prefer a large practice, that incorporates various specialties or includes several vets, or a small and personal office?
Although it's very difficult to determine fully whether a vet is not only qualified, but also dedicated to providing the best care for their clients, there are some basic things that can help you make your choice. Referrals go a long way, no matter what you're talking about - and the more you find for the same vet, the more likely you'll be comfortable as well. By referrals, I mean personal accounts by people you're familiar with, whether it's relatives, friends, coworkers or neighbors. The same holds true for warnings from others. When we first moved to our neighborhood, I heard from several people that the nearest animal hospital was the worst place you could take your pet, and to avoid it at all costs. Guess what? They were right. Eventually I was able to learn of evidence that this was, indeed, a horrible place to entrust your pet's well-being to.
On a different note, a suggestion was made for Angie's List. Referral sites, whether they are from businesses or of a voluntary or nonprofit nature, could be a great starting point, a guide to find what you're looking for. But as websites go, I personally would not solely trust any site for recommendations, simply because of the anonymity of the internet. Who really gave the glowing reviews? What really was the reason someone complained? There isn't enough solid information for my liking (and call me paranoid, but I don't trust that some of it is even faked). But it would certainly help for suggestions to consider. And yes, Angie's List does offer information on veterinarians, too. So, checking this or a similar site could give you ideas on who to consider.
One reason it can be one of the most difficult tasks in determining a veterinarian's worthiness for your pet, is that the field is notoriously secretive about disciplinary actions and complaints. Vets are usually regulated by the state they are doing business and licensed in. Usually a state board, comprised of other veterinarians, is charged with the oversight of practitioners. However, each state has their own setup. A complaint can be formally filed with them; even the person filing, however, may never learn what the outcome of the investigation is. For many though, after a rather lengthy period, the information will be posted publicly if there was a resulting disciplinary measure taken. If a board finds that a vet did not perform according to required standards, there may be a fine, probation, suspension - or in the most severe cases, revoking of the license. In my state of Illinois, I was able to find this information on the state website. Not all states publish on the web, but many do. Although the information from the board is minimal, and comprises what are probably the most severe cases documented, it at least helps you to rule out a vet with a record of repeated violations.
Aside from recommendations, much of your process in finding just the right vet will involve legwork by you. It is highly recommended that once you narrow down who you might choose, you visit the vet's office in person and perhaps meet with the vet as well. I think, more than any other means of determining the vet you prefer the best, is by gut feeling. That voice inside of you tells you more than you usually pay attention to. If you visit the office, check for cleanliness, approachability of the staff (perhaps the vet as well, but I wouldn't hold it against a vet for being too immersed in their attention to the pets at hand), and whether the office hours, fees, and any additional services fit with your expectations. Once you do see the vet with your pet, you'll definitely know for sure how you feel, as you watch him/her and how your pet is handled, respected, and your sense that this vet will be your best solution if or when you need them.
Just like with any other business, veterinary care can be offered by super-fantastic professionals, or mediocre to downright awful people. Thankfully, the number of the latter is small. Should you, however, find yourself in a situation where you believe your vet has either been negligent or worse, it's important to document everything you can and report the vet or situation. For the sake of unknowing pet parents and their trusted charges, that is one thing we can do to minimize the "bad" people and their ability to harm other pets. You might not ever hear about the results of the case, you definitely won't be reimbursed for any expenses you feel you were wrongly charged or incurred due to the incident you file the complaint on, but you just might assist in the remedy of a vet who is either ill-advised or ill-behaved.
We love our vets! The practice we now go to I recommend to everyone I know; and I've heard from many who were extremely happy to have been given the recommendation. They, too, are now thrilled. It's worth the effort and time to do a thorough search for a vet you feel confident about. And of course, it's ultimately extremely important for your pet!
And a reminder to anyone planning to take home a pet this holiday season - get a vet, then get a pet! Knowing exactly who will care for your new pet, and being prepared before even bringing one home, will enable you to be the best pet parent you possibly could be. In an emergency, there would be no rash dash to "any" vet, you'll have established your basic records making it easier and quicker for their office to assist you, and you'll have the peace of mind knowing you've done your homework. Just like parents with human kids, you want the best care for your pet. And so will your chosen veterinarian!
A few helpful sites:
AVMA Choosing a Vet
Smart Money: Spending Ripoffs
State of Illinois Vet Board (example)