How to Check Out a Doctor for Medical Malpractice

Checking a doctor's history of malpractice suits and disciplinary actions can help guide you in choosing a doctor. When you need difficult medical testing or treatment, you must choose your doctor wisely. You'll want to do some research about the doctor to be sure his credentials, experience, and abilities to meet your needs.

Midsection Of Doctor Discussing With Patient At Table In Clinic
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Information Sources

The information you seek may not be easy to find. While many of the directory listings or doctor rating websites provide some disciplinary information, rarely is it complete or current. In some cases, it is up to the doctors to self-report problems, and malpractice is one thing they'll be least likely to divulge

The best source of information is the state medical licensing board, although you will need to check each state where the doctor had practiced. To find that, use the AMA Doc Finder managed by the American Medical Association.

How to Do a Background Search

The background search of a doctor's medical history takes time, so don't be discouraged if you don't get your answers immediately. In some cases, you may need to speak with someone on the phone; in others, you may find what you need online. To do a background medical search:

  1. Go to the Federation of State Medical Board's Physician Data Center website to check the doctor's basic information including board certifications, education, the listed states where an active license is maintained, and any actions against the doctor.
  2. Check the state's medical licensing board for your state and anywhere the doctor has practiced using the AMA Doc Finder. If you find a doctor's license has been suspended, that generally means that there has been an actionable offense.
  3. Do an online search. Place quotation marks around the doctor's name to keep the phrase intact (such as "Dr. John Smith") and follow this with such keywords as "malpractice," "lawsuit," "sanction," "complaint," or "suspension." Start by using only one keyword at a time. You can use more as you widen your search.

Remember that there may be more than one doctor with the same name. Cross-reference whatever information you have to ensure you don't make a mistake.

It is important that you contact every state medical licensing board under which the doctor has practiced, not just your own. Malpractice suits and disciplinary actions do not always get transferred from one licensing board to the next.

The sad truth is that a doctor can amass a malpractice track record in one state, get licensed in a new state, and start again with a clean slate. As such, you need to do your homework to ensure you get the fullest body of evidence possible.

Making a Qualified Judgment

Even when malpractice or disciplinary information can be found, it may require an explanation of terminology or circumstances. Judging a doctor simply on that doctor's malpractice track record may not provide the whole story.

For example, some of rankings websites may indicate that a surgeon is "successful." What they don't tell you is that some surgeons, in order to keep their ratings high, will not accept certain high-risk patients. A record that shows a higher failure rate doesn't always mean that a doctor is "less successful."

The same applies to the uncovering of a malpractice suit. While it can steer you well away from a less-than-reputable doctor, it can also lead to wrong assumptions.

As much as a malpractice suit may be a red flag, it doesn't necessarily mean that it was justified. It is not unusual for a suit to be filed for a death or injury beyond a doctor's control. Be fair and speak with the doctor rather than making a wrong assumption.

The main thing is to be objective and goal-oriented. The goal is not to uncover dirt; it is to find you the best doctor, surgeon, or specialist for your needs and condition. To this end, don't hesitate to ask a doctor about a malpractice suit or other action you may find.

While you may not get the answers you need, you at least have the opportunity to make an informed judgment based on all of the facts you've received.

A Word From Verywell

Upon completing a background search, don't be disappointed if you end up with scant information. It may mean that the doctor has a clean record, or it may be that an infraction has been legally removed.

For example, if a lawsuit has been settled out of court, it may be removed since the claim will have been withdrawn. It doesn't mean that the doctor was in the wrong (sometimes it's cheaper to settle than to incur expensive legal fees) and doesn't mean that the doctor is right.

If you don't have any information about a doctor, go the direct route and simply ask if he or she has ever been hit with a malpractice suit, civil action, or disciplinary action. It's your right to know. Be respectful and simply let your instinct tell you what makes sense and what doesn't.

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