How to Check a Doctor's Credentials

Written by Christina Davis on Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 10:28am

How can you be certain that your doctor has the appropriate expertise to provide the care you need?  In times of emergency, you may not have the luxury of researching and selecting a new physician from an array of possible providers.  In other situations, you should do your homework by checking out a potential doctor’s credentials before making an appointment. 

State Licensure

In order to legally practice medicine, all doctors must be licensed by the state in which they practice.  Look up your doctor’s name on your state’s physician licensing website to verify their license.  State licensing websites also offer information about whether a physician has undergone any disciplinary actions related to malpractice.

Board Certification

Board certification in a medical specialty verifies that a doctor has passed a rigorous set of standards regarding training and competency.  The American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) recognizes 24 specialty and sub-specialty boards, from anesthesiology and family medicine, to ophthalmology and urology.   Doctors must also fulfill continuing education requirements to maintain their certification.  You can check that your doctor is board-certified by searching for their name on the ABMS website.  Your doctor may also have been board-certified by one of the boards included in the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) or the American Board of Physician Specialties (ABPS).  These organizations also maintain searchable databases of members on the web.  All three of these organizations are well-respected and uphold high standards.

As you research, you may find that your doctor claims to be board-certified in a medical specialty that is not recognized by the ABMS, AOA, or ABPS.   In some cases, this is because it is a relatively new specialty or sub-specialty that has not yet joined one of the umbrella organizations.  In other cases, this may be because the board certifies physicians in alternative medical practices.  You may need to use your own judgment to determine the validity of these boards.

Medical School and Residency

It is not necessary for your doctor to have graduated from a top-tier training program in order to provide excellent care, but knowing when a doctor finished his or her training can help you judge their age and the length of time they have been in practice.  You may prefer an older, more experienced physician or a younger physician, who may be more well-versed in the current literature.

Hospital Affiliation

Don’t forget to make sure that your doctor is affiliated with the hospital of your choice. Even if they are in private practice, many doctors will have admission privileges to certain hospitals in case a patient presents gravely ill.

Physician Ratings Websites

There are a variety of free physician ratings websites available that are designed to help you choose a good practitioner.  In general, you should take the information on these websites with a grain of salt, recognizing that the information may not be completely up-to-date and that it may rely on patient reviews, which may be unfairly biased for or against the physician.   Consumer Reports also lists several websites that offer background information on physicians for a fee, including Consumers Checkbook Guide to Top Doctors and HealthGrades.

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