If you're concerned that your doctor may be unduly influenced by pharmaceutical companies, you can use the "Dollars for Doctors" page maintained by the ProPublica journalism project to find out if he or she has received drug company money and, if so, how much. You can also see how doctors' prescribing habits compare with their peers' at ProPublica's Prescriber Checkup page, projects.propublica.org/checkup. The site shows how often a physician prescribes drugs that present special risks compared with the average doctor, as well as rates of name-brand drug prescriptions and the average number and cost of prescriptions their patients are given.
An Internet search may turn up patient complaints or lawsuits that are still pending, but keep a skeptical eye about such reports, says Daniel Spogen, a physician at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Sometimes a doctor does everything right but the patient fares poorly anyway, through no fault of the physician, and the patient or his family sues. The average physician is sued for malpractice once every seven or eight years, but not every lawsuit has just cause, Spogen says.
As for the reader with the back surgery gone wrong, he now searches the Web for lawsuits or complaints against doctors he might choose to visit, and he looks for their names in court records before seeing them. His methods may seem extreme, but he's willing to spend the extra time to ensure that he has turned over every stone.