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Web Search Guides

by Tom Stewart, Associate Editor

I. Overview of Topic

Thanks to the Web it's now possible to check out an American doctor or medical specialist easily and quickly.

If you're looking for a new family doctor or if you've been referred to a specialist, you really should take a few minutes to check out the professional background of that medical practitioner. At a minimum, you want to be sure he/she has had proper educational/residency training, is board-certified (if a specialist), and has not been subjected to serious disciplinary actions. Beyond that, you may also want to know if the practitioner has been successfully sued for malpractice (or settled malpractice claims out of court), if he/she has sufficient malpractice insurance, and, perhaps, if he/she has academic appointments, publications, etc. that suggest a depth of knowledge and experience in the field.

Fifteen years ago finding all this information about any physician would have been just about impossible. Nowadays, the Internet will usually deliver it to your computer screen in a few minutes. But before you start your doc-checking expedition, let's overview the types of resources that are out there.

First, let me make clear that checking out the background of your present or future physician is not an idle exercise. Every year, State Medical Boards take disciplinary action against approximately one in a hundred doctors throughout the U.S. for such offenses as substandard care, incompetence, negligence, substance abuse, misprescribing or overprescribing drugs, and sexual abuse or sexual misconduct with patients. Another major problem is that general physicians sometimes "self-designate" themselves as specialists - for example, a general practitioner may set himself up as a plastic surgeon, without specialized training/residency in plastic surgery. Amazingly, this is not illegal in the U.S., as long as the doctor has an M.D., so to protect yourself against these quacks you're wise to do some research on any specialist you entrust your health to before he/she begins your treatment.

There are basically two ways to get background information on a doctor - using government sources or using fee-based (private company) sources. The latter is usually (but not always) faster and simpler, though thoroughness varies a lot among the private-company "doc" information providers, and so does pricing.

Let's start with government sources, which are free.

Using Government Sources

Availability of online public information on doctors differs greatly from state to state. Generally, your best starting point is your state's main website, or perhaps your state's Department of Health website. Look for links to "professional licensing" -- then click on "physicians" or "medicine."

Some states, like Florida, provide a full range of data on all practicing physicians in the state. Others provide little more than address/phone number and license verification.

And even in a state like Florida it can be a real hassle to navigate the state website and get to the information you need. Here's what I had to do to get information on my family physician, using, the official Florida website:

First, I went to and scanned the index page for a link to "physician licensing" or something similar. Nothing there. So I went to the Site Map and clicked on "Licenses, Permits, and Vital Records."
That link took me a a "Professional Licenses" list - I scanned the list and clicked on "Medicine."
That took me to the Florida Department of Health website. I clicked on "Licensure and Certification."
That took me to a page headed "Health Professional Licensure" and I clicked on a link to "Medical Quality Assurance."
That took me to a page headed "Citizen/Consumer Assistance" and I clicked on "Verify Licensed Provider."
At last I was on a page where I could enter the name and specialization of the physician into a search form and get the background info I was looking for.

Unfortunately most government web designers seem to feel they have to make you suffer a little to get to the information you need!

But once I got there, the site provided a great deal of well-organized information - all free. Here's what you can get on the Florida Department of Health site on virtually any medical practitioner in the state:

  • Practitioner Profile: Year Began Practicing; License Number and Expiration Date; Primary Practice Address; Secondary Address; Medicaid Accept or Not Participate; Hospitals Where He/She Has Staff Privileges; Email Address; Other State Licenses
  • Education & Training: Institution Name; Dates of Attendance; Graduation Date; Degree Title; Other Health-Related Degrees; Professional and Postgraduate Training
  • Academic Appointments
  • Specialty Certifications
  • Financial Responsibility (Professional Liability Insurance Coverage)
  • Proceedings and Actions (Lawsuits and Disciplinary Actions)
  • Optional Information (Committees/Memberships; Professional or Community Service Awards; Publications; Languages Other Than English; Other Affiliations

Given the above, I can't see any reason to pay a private company for physician background information in Florida. Unfortunately, few states equal Florida in the completeness of the data they provide.

Incidentally, you may be interested to know that the federal government maintains a database of all disciplinary actions against doctors by state medical boards and federal agencies - the National Practitioner Database. It is not, however, generally accessible by the public. Instead, try Questionable Doctors Click on the state that concerns you - then scroll to the bottom of the page for address/URL of the State Board of Medical Examiners. You should be able to quickly learn of disciplinary action from this source - a simple phone call is best.

However, if all you want to know is whether your specialist is board certified, you can get that info by calling the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) at 866-275-2267. This is worth a call even if the physician claims to be board-certified; he/she may be indulging in wishful thinking, or may only be "board qualified," meaning he/she hasn't yet passed the required examinations. Personally, I would prefer that the doctor pass the exams and then treat me, not vice-versa.

Using Private-Company Sources

Internet entrepreneurs have not been slow in realizing that doctor background info is widely needed but not always easily accessible. Dozens of companies now offer this type of info online; however the thoroughness, quality, and cost vary considerably.

Among the major providers, the two best-known are ChoiceTrust and HealthGrades.

  • ChoiceTrust - You can check out doctors, dentists, chiropractors, or nurses. For doctors, your report will include education, residencies, license information, disciplinary actions, sanctions, consent orders, etc. Single report: $7.95. Day Pass (unlimited reports for 24 hours): $11.95
  • HealthGrades - Offers evaluations of physicians, hospitals, and nursing homes. For physicians, there are two kinds of reports, namely Physician Quality Comparisons ($9.95) and Physician Quality Report ($29.95). The former, Physician Quality Comparisons, is essentially a search service, locating doctors meeting your specialization/location criteria (and certain other criteria) in your area. The latter, Physician Quality Report, is a fairly standard doctor background report which includes information on disciplinary actions, board certification, education, and licensing, plus something unusual: patient opinions. So, as you can see, the HealthGrades report is much the same as the ChoiceTrust report, except it includes the patient opinions data - for this you pay an additional $22.95.

That's it – our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you continue your research on checking out doctors.

II. For Additional Research

This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other online resources


RevolutionHealth is an amazingly comprehensive health information website. Take a few minutes to look at this - it's a resource you should bookmark. Registration is required but this merely requires that you provide your email address and set up a password. For this small investment in time you will have doctor-finding and rating tools, hospital comparative rating charts, disease/medication/treatment research tools, health risk assessment, exercise tracking tools, a 6-week healthy living program, many free newsletters, and much more. You can also sign up for a Premium Membership ($129./year) which provides a "Health Assistant and Advocate" to assist you in dealing with virtually any type of health question or concern, from finding treatment options to dealing with your health insurance provider. Its a very cool, very useful site and you could spend many hours profitably perusing it.

Related Web Search Guides

Other Web Search Guides you might find useful:
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Checking Out a Business

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III.Discussion Group


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