Doctors make life-and-death decisions through the advice they dispense, the medications they prescribe and the surgeries and procedures they perform. Patients typically spend more time looking for a reliable car mechanic than investigating their doctors. Checking a doctor's professional record is not always as simple as using an Internet search engine. Alternatively, using paid reports often yields incomplete results, can be expensive and usually contain a compilation of information that is readily available from free and accessible public sources. Perform a thorough search on your doctor using sources contained on the Internet and public records.
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Collect information about the doctor. The first step in investigating your doctor's background is collecting as much information as possible about the doctor to conduct your research. Knowing a last name is often not enough; there can be a lot of Dr. Smiths and Dr. Robinsons out there. At a minimum, be sure you know the exact spelling, middle name or initial, office location, and speciality.
Check state disciplinary records. Every state maintains a database of licensed physicians and any disciplinary actions against these doctors (check the Resource section for a link that lists and rates all 50 state medical boards). The amount of information contained at each state website varies, as does the time limit for reporting any adverse information. After browsing your findings, either print or copy and paste the information into a document for later reference. You will need information such as the doctor's license number and where they previously practised to dig a little deeper. State laws vary and the physician lobbyists are a powerful influence in the passing of laws regulating what can be reported, how long it can be reported for and how the information is listed. For your background check to be comprehensive, you should also take note of any other states the doctor has practised or attended school in. Check all of the state disciplinary boards that the doctor has practised in for any actions, claims, settlements or adverse proceedings.
Check your state's insurance board of regulation website. After reviewing the website database of your state’s Disciplinary Board, you may think that your search is over--not yet. The results on some state physician disciplinary websites can be misleading. Malpractice litigation that was settled out of court, was filed longer than that particular state's reporting requirement, or filed under a different name or license number will not be listed. Surprisingly, in some cases adverse information must be reported by the physician himself, and is often incomplete or missing entirely. Many state insurance boards maintain a database of malpractice claims filed against doctors. When searching the insurance board sites, you may need the doctor’s license number to check the database. Fill in only enough information to find the doctor you are looking for. Filling in more than just the license number will often limit or eliminate any results. You will be surprised at the detailed information some of these searches will yield. Specific information regarding the nature of the complaint and facts about the settlement claim are often available.
Check county court records. Using the county in the state where you doctor practices, check the county court clerk's website for any claims filed against the doctor. You may need to try a few different searches, using variations on the doctor's full name. For example, you may not find any claims filed against Dr. Simon Alexander, but there may be actions against Simon Alexander, MD, or S. Alexander. There are normally no naming standards for court actions on county court sites. The litigants are listed in the same manner as they are listed in the lawsuit or court document. Broaden your search to include the counties where you doctor has hospital privileges or formerly practised for a more comprehensive assessment.
Tips and warnings
- Perform a quick search of your doctor's name on your local newspaper's website. Local newspapers are often archived for several years, and often yield search results related to large malpractice awards, disciplinary actions, and criminal activity.
- If in doubt about something you read in the research--ask your doctor for clarification. If he is put off by your question, or refuses to clarify, it is time to move to the next doctor on your list.
- Often a discovery from one source will assist you in more in depth research. For example, finding the doctor's license number or formal business name can help you search other databases for actions.
- On the encouraging side, your research can often yield positive information about your doctor. Information such as published articles, faculty assignments and specialised training taken by your doctor will make you feel more confident and informed about your choice.
- Some of the information you find will be subjective. State disciplinary boards in some states are mandated to report any criminal infractions committed by physicians indefinitely. Assessing the impact of a DWI 15 years ago on the quality of care you receive is subject to interpretation.
- Even with the most diligent efforts and tenacious investigative work, a physician's adverse history can remain buried, or even hidden from public view. Nothing can substitute for common sense and good judgment. These will always remain good ways to evaluate your doctor. Even a doctor with a spotless record may not be the best candidate to treat your medical condition or perform your surgery. Always ask pointed questions, discuss alternatives, get second opinions and take charge of your health care.
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