How Do I Check My Doctor's Credentials?

Q: When I looked over the list of local doctors who accept my health insurance, I was surprised that so many were from other countries. How do you check the credentials of a foreign doctor?

A: Roughly one in every four physicians practicing in the United States is a graduate of an international medical school, so it's not surprising to find so many foreign names in an insurance company's directory of doctors.

Experts say the most important thing to realize is that international medical school graduates, or IMGs as they're known, not only must pass the same state licensing tests and residency requirements as domestically trained doctors, they must go even further.

First, IMGs must pass an English proficiency test and supply their medical school transcripts to the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. IMGs also must pass the ECFMG's Clinical Skills Assessment exam, in which they examine and diagnose people trained to act like patients suffering from various ailments. They're graded on their communication skills as well as their medical skills.

"The international graduate, I think, is unquestionably tested rigorously,'' said Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan, a professor at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a former assistant U.S. surgeon general.

The fact that a doctor is accepted by a health plan means the insurance company has verified his or her basic credentials through state medical boards, residency programs, medical schools and other sources.

Insurance companies "are not going to put a physician on a network if they're not satisfied with the amount of information and the quality of the information they receive,'' said Robin Phomashauer of the Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare.

Still, there is information available on most doctors that might not disqualify them from a health plan, but that might nonetheless influence your decision on whether he or she is the right choice for you.

Many state medical boards offer physician profiles in searchable databases on the Internet. There is a variety of information available, depending on the state.

Most of the databases include the doctor's education, license status and whether the state medical board has taken any disciplinary action against him or her. Some states also reveal more information regarding any complaints filed against the doctor, malpractice suits and criminal charges.

If your state does not have an online database, you may be able to request the information directly from the medical board.

The next step is asking what the doctor's specialty is, and finding out if he or she is certified and practicing in that specialty, said Dr. Subramanyan Jayasankar, the chairman of the American Medical Association's IMG Governing Council.

To check if a doctor is certified in his specialty, you can search online through the American Board of Medical Specialties' Web site.

Finally, Dr. Jayasankar suggests asking around your community. Health care workers at the hospital where the doctor is affiliated, or some of the doctor's current patients, might have insights to help complete the portrait of the physician.

Different patients want different things in a doctor. Some prefer a no-nonsense "just the facts'' approach, while others like a warmer, "hand-holding'' approach, Jayasankar said. So it's important to ask "how good are they for me?'' (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)