This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
We trust doctors with our most important possession: our health. But how do we know exactly how reputable our doctors are? Is bedside manner important? How accurate are online reviews? Are disciplinary actions a red flag?
These days, there are so many sources of information accessible to us, it can be difficult to sort out the useful details from the distractions and rumors. But not to worry. We’re here to help, with tips on how to accurately assess your doctor’s online reputation.
Basic licensing checks
In most cases, you can be relatively sure your doctor is licensed to practice medicine without doing any kind of background check. However, every once in a while, stories do appear in the news about unlicensed practitioners flying under the radar.
If you have suspicions, here’s how to check a medical license.
Start at the state level. Each state has a board that grants licenses, and each board has a searchable database of physicians who have been granted a license to practice in that state. You simply enter a doctor’s name and type of license to see detailed information on the doctor’s accreditations and the status of his or her licenses.
Note that states can issue several different kinds of medical licenses, or require a doctor to hold several depending on the type of practice and state law. Look up the licenses listed on your doctor’s profile to find out if they require any additional certifications to be valid.
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If you’re still unclear, you can also look up almost any doctor holding a license at the American Medical Association’s official web portal. Not all doctors are members of the American Medical Association, but many of them are. If your doctor isn’t a member, at the least you may want to ask him or her why not, as it’s usually seen as a symbol of professionalism to maintain an active membership. The same holds true with dentists and American Dental Association membership.
The importance of disciplinary actions
It can be a horrifying experience to google your doctor and find a scary-looking disciplinary action near the top of the search results. In some cases, these actions are causes for concern, in other cases, not so much.
Some disciplinary actions arise automatically through mistakes or omissions that have little to do with the doctor’s competence. For example, the doctor may have failed to file paperwork by a required deadline and gotten a temporary suspension as a result. Doctor’s are also responsible for the actions of their staff, so a misbehaving nurse or medical assistant can end up causing issues that end up on the doctor’s record. If you like your doctor and see these types of actions, there’s probably no need to worry.
In other cases, however, disciplinary actions stem from more serious problems. One common cause is abusing prescription privileges to support a drug dependence problem. Unless the doctor has sought treatment for his or her addiction issues, you will probably want to steer clear of anyone with this type of blemish on their records.
Other serious causes for discipline include malpractice and negligence. In the former, a doctor conducts a treatment that is harmful to the patient in a situation where he or she should have known better. In the latter, the doctor fails to perform his or her professional duties in a way that could reasonably be expected to harm the patient.
With all of this in mind, however, if your doctor is still licensed to practice despite the disciplinary action, that means that your state medical board deems him or her to be a competent health professional. People make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t correct them. If you trust this doctor despite the issues you’ve found, it’s not necessarily wrong to stay with him or her.
How to look up disciplinary actions
If you want to search for disciplinary actions, you’ll have to do a bit of sleuthing. Unfortunately, finding this aspect of a physician’s reputation is sometimes more difficult than it really should be. While the federal government maintains the National Practitioner Data Bank, a detailed database of malpractice payments, disciplinary actions and other issues that would be valuable for consumers, that database does not identify doctors to the public. It does offer hospitals and health care companies the ability to ensure a doctor is in good standing, so you can ask your insurer if the doctor has been checked against the databank.
Some states, such as Illinois and New York, offer a full or partial malpractice database for consumers. Try a Google search to see if there is a database for your state. If not, try searching for your doctor’s name and “malpractice” or “lawsuit.” Run several searches and combine terms to be completely thorough; this should give you a fuller view of any doctor’s reputation.
Evaluating online reviews
Online reviews give a lot of power to consumers, and this holds just as true in healthcare. If your doctor has a lot of online reviews, these can be useful in assessing the quality of his or her care.
That said, it’s helpful to learn how to read online reviews. Never go solely by the star rating. While a doctor with a 5-star average is probably better than a doctor with a 1-star average, there are some important qualifiers:
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Quantity – The more reviews a doctor has, the more likely it is that the average rating is accurate. A doctor with three reviews may be fantastic or horrible, no matter what the average rating. It’s just too few reviews to say anything meaningful.
Review Length – Longer reviews are more valuable than short ones. They mean that someone cared enough about the experience to share something in detail. Read those reviews more closely than the one-liners.
Bedside Manner – Studies have shown that bedside manner is the biggest predictor of doctor popularity, even though it has virtually no connection to the competence of the doctor. Be extra critical of reviews that only discuss the attitude of the doctor and other interpersonal skills. It’s not that these things don’t matter, but bedside manner complaints are sometimes a sign of a difficult patient rather than a bad doctor. Look for some other reviews that discuss different aspects of the doctor’s care.