— Recently a reader wrote me to ask how patients can perform background checks on their doctors, to make sure that they're in good standing. He had a reason for asking: A few years ago, he said, he'd agreed to have a spinal fusion performed by an apparently well-regarded surgeon. The operation left him worse off than when he started, and he later discovered that there were numerous malpractice lawsuits pending against the surgeon.
The reader was outraged and confused. He had been given the surgeon's name by another doctor. He'd even looked up the surgeon's profile online, and what he found there looked like a clean record.
Unfortunately, there's no foolproof way to vet your doctor, says physician Michael Carome, director of the health research group at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization based in Washington. But there are some basic steps you can take to look into a doctor's credentials and record.
Start at your state's medical board. Most state medical boards' Web sites allow you to search for individual physician licenses. Boards vary in the amount of data they disclose on these sites, Carome says, but many will list information about disciplinary actions taken against a physician and payments made for medical malpractice lawsuits. If your state doesn't post that information, you may be able to contact the medical board and request it, Carome says.
Realize, though, that such records will show only settlements that have been made, not pending lawsuits or investigations that aren't complete, and states vary in how aggressive they are in taking action against problem doctors, Carome says. "Too often, medical boards give problem physicians a slap on the wrist - like a letter of reprimand, probation or a suspended license that is then immediately reinstated - so that they can continue practicing." What may appear like a minor infraction in the doctor's record could represent something serious, so don't be afraid to ask questions, Carome says.