1. Health

How to Research a Doctor's Credentials

A Thorough Background Check Will Help You Be Confident in His or Her Competency


Updated May 26, 2014

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 by him or her. 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 ratings 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 this 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 this 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 us 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 his or her 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 this doctor?

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

  • First, 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 over the rest of your lifetime.
  • Second, 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 more notes about this in Choosing the Right Doctor for You.)
  • Third, it will help you establish whether longevity is a deciding factor for that doctor (see the next question about how long the doctor has been in practice.)

• 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 (she may have decided to move to Florida and retire in a few years - or - she may have lost her license due to negligence in another state before moving to her 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 this 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.

Next: Does this doctor have any stains on his or her record? (Ferreting out possible problems with medical mistakes, malpractice lawsuits or conflicts of interest)

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