How to Check a Doctor's Background and Credentials

Choose the Right Doctor for You

Happy mature female doctor with senior patient in clinic
Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images

One important step in choosing the right doctor is to do a background check on that physician. You can research a doctor's credentials to be sure he or she is competent to take care of you.

It's not always possible to research ahead of time. For example, you may be assigned a doctor in an emergency room or you must see a different doctor because your's is out when you arrive for an appointment. You may not have the time to do research on that doctor before you are examined but you can do so as soon as possible afterward. If you find you don't like that doctors' background, you can try to change doctors later.

Where to Start in Checking a Doctor's Credentials

To research a doctor, you'll need to start with his or her name and location. Go to the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) website to check the basics with their DocInfo.org search function. You will find the doctor's board certifications, education, states with active licenses, and any actions against the physician.

  • License: Each state licenses doctors. With no license, the doctor is not allowed to practice medicine. You can further research the doctor with the state physician licensing board in each state where he or she is licensed.
  • Board-Certified: Doctors may claim various board certifications in medical specialties. These credentials are verified by medical facilities who employ them or grant them privileges, but you may check board certification as well. Doctors may be board-certified in one area, but actually practicing in a different area of medicine.
  • Medical School and Residency: For an older doctor, this may be less important than one who is younger and just getting started in practice. You may not know how old a doctor is when all you have is a name, so this information will give you some insight into his or her background and education credentials. The FSMB site shows medical school education and graduation dates. In some states, there will be more information about residency on their licensing site. For others, you'll get the information most quickly at a site like UCompareHealthcare.
  • Actions: These are related to malpractice or other disciplinary actions brought against the physician. There will be only basic information, but this is a prompt to search further with the state licensing board and online searches.

The Age of the Doctor

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

  1. If a 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.
  2. 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.
  3. It will help you establish whether longevity is a deciding factor in seeing this doctor.

Length of Practice

You may be able to assess how long a physician has practiced in one place at your states' medical licensing board site, or it may require one of the online doctor listing sites. 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. For example, a doctor may have decided to move to Florida and will retire in a few years, or he may have lost his 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.

Hospital Affiliations

Doctors must apply for privileges to admit and treat patients at hospitals. If you have a preferred hospital, it is important that the doctor has privileges to practice there. Some sites will note which hospitals a doctor is affiliated with. These facilities do additional and ongoing checks of the doctor's credentials, which can be an assurance of their validity.

Malpractice, Disciplinary Actions, and Online Ratings

A doctor may have reported problems for anything from a bad attitude to an unclean office to malpractice. Problems for others may become problems for you. The FSMB site will list any actions related to medical malpractice, but you may want to do further web searches for the doctor by name for suits that may be pending.

To find general commentary about a doctor's practice, you might turn to some of the online doctors' ratings sites. However, be aware that these ratings are subjective and may have been influenced in many ways.

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

If the doctor is involved in medical research, then her 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 they 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, do a general online search with the doctor's name and the word "publication" or "research." If you 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.

The Doctor's Personality and Attitudes

You will want to review a doctor's personality and attitudes if you will have a long-term relationship with the doctor as a primary care doctor or in a specialty where you will have ongoing care such as a cardiologist, endocrinologist, or allergist.

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. A "nice" doctor is not necessarily competent. 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.