How to Check a Doctor's Background & Credentials

Choose the Right Doctor for You

Happy mature female doctor with senior patient in clinic
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One important step in choosing the right doctor for you is to do a background check on that physician. Here is how to research a doctor's credentials to be sure he or she is competent to take care of you.

Of course, it's not always possible to research ahead of time. For example, if you are assigned a doctor in an emergency room or if you show up for an appointment to see your doctor only to learn you've be assigned to another, you may not have the time to do research on that doctor before you are examined.

In that case, once you do have the opportunity (or if someone who is filling the role of your advocate does) then do your research as soon as possible afterward. If you find you don't like that doctors' background, you can try to change doctors later.

To research an individual doctor, you'll need to start with his or her name and location. If you don't have that information yet, here are some ways to find doctors' names. Also, before we get started with specific resources, let me warn you against using doctor review and rating sites. In fact, we've learned just how dangerous reliance on these sites can be by taking a look at specific doctors who have been sued and even arrested for their damage to patients despite stellar reviews online. 

Once you have the doctor's name and location, determine the answers to these questions:

Is the Doctor Licensed?

Each state licenses doctors. You can look up licenses at your state's physician licensing board.

With no license, the doctor is not allowed to practice medicine.

Is the Doctor Board-Certified?

Doctors may claim to be board-certified, but there is no one who is checking to see if that's true unless it's the patients. Further, doctors may be board-certified in one area, but actually practicing in a different area of medicine.

You'll want to understand why board certification is important. And you'll want to verify a physician's board certification.

Where Did the Doctor Go to Medical School and Do Thier Residency?

For an older doctor this may be less important than one who is younger and just getting started in practice. Most of us have no idea how old a doctor is when all we have is a name, so this information will give you some insight into his or her background and education credentials. In some states, this information will be listed along with licensing. For others, you'll get the information most quickly at a site like UCompareHealthcare.

How Old Is the Doctor?

There are three reasons you want to establish an approximate age.

  1. If this new doctor is quite a bit older than you are, and may retire or leave practice before you get older yourself, then you may want to keep searching for one who is younger, or at least closer in age to you. If your medical problem is acute, then this will be less important. However, if your symptoms or diagnosis are chronic, you'll want to establish a relationship with a doctor who can treat you during the rest of your lifetime.
  1. You may be interested in seeing a doctor who has been in practice a long time and is therefore very experienced. Conversely, you may be interested in a younger doctor who has been taught in medical school to use more modern equipment or may be more up-to-date on research in a specialty area. (See Choosing the Right Doctor for You.)
  2. It will help you establish whether longevity is a deciding factor in seeing this doctor.

How Long Has the Doctor Been in Practice?

You may be able to assess this at your states' medical licensing board site, or it may require one of the online doctor listing sites. You are looking for longevity in one place. For example, if a doctor is 50 years old, but appears to have been practicing in his or her location for fewer than 10 years, that indicates an interruption in his or her practice.

An interruption may be due to a variety of circumstances (they may have decided to move to Florida and retire in a few years or they may have lost their license due to negligence in another state before moving to their current location.) Longevity may give you a sense of how much more digging you need to do into possible problems.

If the doctor has not been licensed for as long as you think he or she should have been, then do some general digging on the web using that doctor's name and possibly other states' names to see if you can turn up his or her former practice. That may give you a clue as to why the doctor moved.

What Hospital(s) Is the Doctor Affiliated With?

Knowing that more than 200,000 Americans die in hospitals from preventable medical mistakes each year, it becomes vitally important that we take some control over which hospitals can keep us safest. Take a few moments to choose the best hospital for you, then use the same resource you used to determine this doctor's age and education to determine which hospital(s) he or she is affiliated with.

Does the Doctor Have Any Stains on Their Record?

Problems might be anything from a bad attitude to an unclean office to malpractice. And problems for others may become problems for you. To ferret out medical malpractice-related problems, you'll be doing some general searches as described in How to Find a Doctor's Medical Malpractice Track Record.

To find general commentary about a doctor's practice, you might turn to some of the online doctors' ratings sites. However, please pay close attention to the cautions offered in that article about using the information in those sites.

Has the Doctor Published Any Medical Research on Your Diagnosis or Condition?

If the doctor is involved in medical research, then their involvement in that research is important to you. (Not all doctors participate in medical research, but if they are affiliated with academic or university medical centers, there is a good chance her or she is.)

On the one hand, it means they are learning more about your problem, ways to diagnose or treat it, and may be considered experts in the field. On the other hand, it may mean they are being paid by drug or other medical manufacturing companies and their recommendations to you might (or might not) be skewed.

Conflicts of interest have become a major problem, revealing themselves in recommendations being made to patients that aren't necessarily in the best interests of the patient. These conflicts may mean you will be prescribed a drug you don't really need, or they may mean you are pushed into a clinical trial that is more for the benefit of the doctor than for you.

To learn about possible involvement in medical research, just do a general online search with the doctor's name and the word "publication" or "research." If you do find the doctor has been involved in research, then you'll want to look to see whether he or she is being paid by one of those manufacturers.

Doing good background research on a doctor is a good way to gain confidence in your choice before you ever see that doctor. When coupled with general advice about choosing the right doctor for you, you have a far better chance of being satisfied with the relationship.

What About the Doctor's Personality and Attitudes?

Any doctor you see with whom you will have a long-term relationship, such as any primary care doctor (internist, OB-GYN, and others), or even a cardiologist, endocrinologist, allergist or other specialty, should include a review of that doctor's personality and attitudes.

Why is that assessment important? Choosing a doctor who you will have to visit on regular occasions over a number of years means it's important you get along with each other. Choosing one of these doctors is similar to choosing a spouse. With some of them, you may even need to be more intimate than you are with your partner.

A doctor with an arrogant or otherwise difficult personality won't help you nearly so much as one with a more pleasant personality. A doctor with a different belief system—cultural or religious—may make it difficult to get the care you need or want. There are two ways to get information about a doctor's personality and attitudes:

  1. Word of mouth: Talking to friends is one way to get a general assessment of a doctor, with two caveats: One, that a "nice" doctor is not necessarily competent. And two, that a "competent" doctor isn't always the most pleasant. Draw the line on what you are willing to put up with based on how difficult it is to find another doctor who practices the same specialty or offers the same services.
  2. Social media: With the rise in the numbers of doctors who either use Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites, it's easier than ever to use social media to determine the personality and attitudes of a doctor before you ever meet him or her.

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