Turn the tables on your doctors: Do a checkup on them before they conduct one on you.
Armed with an Internet connection, you can make sure the medical professionals you're seeing - or considering - are licensed, find out if they have board certification in their specialties, see quality ratings for the hospitals where they practice, get feedback from their patients and weigh in with your own opinions.
It's the wired-age version of asking everyone you know for recommendations.
"There's an ever-growing appetite for this information," said Scott Shapiro, a spokesman for HealthGrades (healthgrades.com), a site with profiles and ratings of physicians as well as hospitals. The information is collected from a variety of sources, including the doctors themselves. "People are used to researching before making a big decision. ... We get about 5 million individuals who come to the Web site each month."
It's still easier to get the scoop on institutions than doctors. The Maryland Health Care Commission, for instance, produces quality reports on hospitals, HMOs and nursing homes but not physicians.
"We don't collect data that would allow us to get down to the level of the individual physician in terms of performance, and it would be very expensive to try," said Dr. Rex Cowdry, executive director of the commission.
But more and more sites are popping up with doctor details that can help you better compare candidates for the job of keeping you alive and well. Some of the information is objective and some of it is highly opinionated.
For the basic check - any problems you should know about? - head to the Maryland Board of Physicians' practitioner profiles (mbp.state.md.us/bpqapp).
Find out whether doctors' licenses are still active and whether they've been hit with any disciplinary actions, malpractice judgments or convictions for crimes of "moral turpitude."
The American Medical Association offers some information, including whether your doctor is an AMA member and what insurance plans he or she accepts, at this site: http://webapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder.
Vitals.com tracks board certification and rates both the hospital your doctor is affiliated with and the school he or she attended.
Using Medicare? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services keeps a list of physicians who participate in the program - though it warns that not all may be accepting new Medicare patients. You'll find the site at medicare.gov/Physician.
The National Committee for Quality Assurance, a nonprofit that assesses health care quality, recognizes doctors in certain fields - such as those working with patients who have diabetes - who have "demonstrated that they meet important standards of care." You can find those physicians at http://recognition.ncqa .org.
Some insurance companies issue their own gold stars.
UnitedHealthcare, one of the big insurers of Maryland residents, has a Web site that lets users look up doctors by insurance product to see which meet the company's "premium" criteria for quality of care and cost efficiency. You don't have to be a customer to use the site, https:// www.geoaccess.com/uhc/po.
The challenge is that quality ratings and educational histories can't tell you whether you'll get along with a doctor, said Gerard Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"You want to make sure you have a good personal relationship, and that's hard to measure," Anderson said.
"What you'll find is that many doctors just do one thing and do it incredibly well," he explained, "but you need a doctor that can work with other doctors. ... If you've got this prima donna that only cares about your heart and doesn't care that you have diabetes, that's a problem."
Some Web sites, including RateMDs.com and healthgrades.com, are trying to get at such hard-to-measure issues by collecting patient ratings and asking you to share your own experiences.
Cowdry, with the Maryland Health Care Commission, cautions that user ratings aren't like scientifically conducted surveys - you're likely to see comments from people who are either very, very happy or very, very unhappy with their doctors. But John Swapceinski, co-founder of RateMDs .com, thinks you can get useful information from the folks who take time to type up their thoughts.
A doctor might have a lot of irritated former patients, but you wouldn't know that from the disciplinary records if the state medical board doesn't take action, he says.
RateMDs.com, which gets about 450,000 visitors a month, has more than 2,000 rated doctors in Maryland, Swapceinski said.
"There's a self-selection bias, of course, ... but I've become convinced over the years that this does actually work," said Swapceinski, who also started RateMyProfessors.com.
Here are some Web sites to get you started::
*The American Medical Association's DoctorFinder (http://webapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder): Basic information, including whether the doctor is an AMA member and what insurance plans he or she accepts.
*HealthGrades (healthgrades.com): Physician profiles, patient ratings and ratings for the hospitals where the doctors practice.
*Maryland Board of Physicians' practitioner profile system (mbp.state.md.us/bpqapp): Licenses, disciplinary actions, malpractice judgments and convictions for crimes of "moral turpitude."
*The National Committee for Quality Assurance's "recognized physician" directory (http://recognition.ncqa.org): The nonprofit recognizes doctors in certain fields for meeting key standards of care.
*RateMDs.com: Patient ratings of doctors, with commentary.
*The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Medicare list (medicare.gov/Physician): See which physicians participate in the program.
*UnitedHealthcare's ProviderLookup (https:// www.geoaccess.com/uhc/po): Find out whether your physician meets the company's "premium" criteria for quality of care and cost efficiency. *Vitals.com: Doctor profiles, with details including whether they're board certified and how the schools they attended stack up.