Before your next medical checkup, you might want to do some checking up on your doctor.
Recent cases in Arizona, Miami, California, and Connecticut of doctors practicing medicine despite nonexistent, suspended, or revoked licenses highlight the importance of vetting physicians before you enter the waiting room.
Arizona officials in August revoked the license of family doctor Allen B. Aven, who had practiced in Tucson for two years even though Illinois regulators had placed his medical license there on probation and suspended it following evidence he'd had a sexual relationship with a patient.
Arizona officials began investigating Aven in November, but it wasn't until April that they placed any kind of restriction on his license in that state as they reviewed his case.
Many consumers trust that their health insurer, hospital, or state medical licensing agencies have vetted physicians who are open for business. But oversight by medical boards, HMOs, and hospitals is dangerously lax in too many instances, says Alan Levine, a researcher with Public Citizen's Health Research Group , a longtime advocate of more public information on physician discipline.
"You've got a system of self regulation," says Levine, noting that it's mostly physicians who sit on hospital peer-review boards and state licensing boards.
Levine says the recent case of Delaware pediatrician Earl B. Bradley (photo at left) is "an example of everything that can go wrong" with physician oversight. Bradley was arrested in 2009 and sentenced on Aug. 26 to 14 life sentences for raping or sexually abusing 86 children. A recent report ordered by the governor found that allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct first came to the attention of Delaware law enforcement officials in 2005 and came to the attention of other licensed physicians at least 10 years before his arrest.
Of course, only a small percentage of the more than 815,000 licensed physicians in the U.S. is disciplined every year. State boards take fewer than three serious actions for every 1,000 physicians, a statistic Public Citizen says is kept low by the fact that doctors are disciplining doctors.
In any case, patient advocates say your best bet for rooting out doctors with a checkered past is to do your own digging into their histories. And dig you must.
No federal database tracking physician licensing and disciplinary records is available to the public for free.
The National Practitioner Databank was established by Congress in 1986 to be a clearinghouse of information on sanctions by state licensing authorities, malpractice awards, and hospital disciplinary actions. It provides the most complete background check, but only hospitals, doctors, managed care organizations, and government agencies are permitted to access it.
Even so, you can still find critical information with a few mouse clicks or a phone call. Here are some of the best sources:
1.Check with your state's medical board.
Depending on the state, you might get details on disciplinary actions or information on malpractice awards. But each state varies on what information is made public, how often it's updated, and how doctors are disciplined. The best link to websites, addresses, and phone numbers for all 50 states' licensing boards can be found at the website of the Federation of State Medical Boards .
2. Check DocFinder, a free database that allows you to check data from 20 states with a single search.
DocFinder is sponsored by Administrators in Medicine , which provides administrative support to medical licensing and regulatory authorities. But only 20 states have linked their physician licensing data to the site . The group provides links to the other 30 individual state medical boards, including boards for California, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
3. Cough up $9.95 to check across all 50 states in a single search through DocInfo.
Provided by the Federation of State Medical Boards , DocInfo profiles list disciplinary actions, details on the basis for any sanctions, educational history, where and when the doctor has held licenses, and any certifications by the American Board of Medical Specialties .
It's probably the most complete publicly accessible database, as medical boards from all states are members of the non-profit agency, and hospitals and other medical-services providers use the database to check doctor credentials and disciplinary records. Levine of Public Citizen says the fee could be worth it, considering that doctors sanctioned in one state will sometimes move on to another.
4.Check the American Medical Association's DoctorFinder service.
It's most useful for identifying members of the American Medical Association (AMA), if that's important to you. Otherwise, the information here is sparse—name, contact information, AMA membership status, specialty board certifications, and what the physician says is her or her specialty. It has no disciplinary records.
5.Check the federal government's new Physician Compare site.
Physician Compare lists physicians enrolled in Medicare by zip code and specialty. Currently, information is very basic, but by 2013, it should have data on how many physicians stack up against specific quality measures requested by Medicare.
6.Check out patient online reviews.
Some free physician-rating sites include HealthGrades.com , LifeScript.com , RateMDs.com and DoctorScorecard.com , which also has a good set of links to state licensing boards.
Reader beware, though, as review sites vary in cost, quality, timeliness, and usability. They're controversial, too. Indeed, some physicians require patients to sign agreements saying they won't share their experience online. But many people believe patient recommendations are equally important to consider when choosing a physician.
"Your roof is expensive and you should hire the best, most qualified roofer you can, but your health is far more important so it demands at least as much research," says Cheryl Reed, communications director for Angie's List , which provides member ratings of health-care providers for 60 cities.
The service only allows members to submit reports (even though their names aren't published), and it allows service providers to respond. An annual membership for the health reports is about $39.