The Yellow Pages can't tell you if a doctor is good or a lawyer is worth a high fee. But a number of Web sites do.For instance, let's say you switched health plans or moved. Perhaps you need a heart surgeon. Or, you might want to check out your current doctor. Whatever your reason, the Web is a great place to start.
Your first stop should be your health insurance company. Most have sites. Most likely the information will be cursory - phone numbers, office hours and location.
There are two advantages here. Most insurance sites allow you to search by location, specialty and sometimes gender. Also, insurance sites will probably list only doctors who accept your health plan.
Next, try the American Medical Association's (www.ama-assn.org) DoctorFinder. It provides basic information about nearly 700,000 doctors in the United States. It lists both members and non-members of the AMA. According to the AMA, members promise to follow the highest ethical standards.
Your state's medical board probably has more detailed information. Some states, such as California, Connecticut and New York, require physicians to disclose disciplinary action or outcomes of malpractice suits.
Each state has its own medical board. Some are independent, while others belong to a larger group, such as a department of health. However, all belong to the national Federation of State Medical Boards (www.fsmb.org).
The Federation of State Medical Boards runs a disciplinary history reporting service called DocInfo (www.docinfo.org). It claims to have recorded 156,000 disciplinary actions related to approximately 46,000 doctors dating back to the 1960s. It charges $10 per doctor's report.
But disciplinary reports are free from state medical boards. You can search individual Web sites, but that's a hassle. Try the Administrators in Medicine's (www.docboard.org) database. Enter the last name (and first name, to narrow the search) of a doctor. The site will search over a dozen states' medical boards.
Not every state is included in the database. However, the site provides links to medical boards of states not listed.
It can be as important to check out a hospital as a doctor. HealthGrades (www.healthgrades.com) provides a free hospital rating. Select the state and the type of procedure. It grades hospitals based on Medicare Provider Analysis and Review files (information licensed from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and from patient discharge data.
When viewing hospital and doctor information, weigh it carefully. The best doctors in the world usually get the most difficult cases. So criteria like mortality rates may not be the best indicator of an excellent doctor.
Finding a lawyer is another confusing and scary process. If your issue is serious, you might not want to approach coworkers or friends for recommendations.
FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) and Martindale-Hubbell (www.lawyers.com) provide extensive information on law firms and individual lawyers. You can search by area of expertise, location or by name. The sites provide location, Web site and contact information.
The sites also provide more extensive information, such as educational background, practice areas, and associations to which a lawyer belongs.
Once you find a lawyer who meets your needs, the American Bar Association suggests you check for disciplinary action before hiring. Disciplinary action could mean disbarment, suspending or limiting a lawyer's right to practice law, or other disciplinary actions. Its Web site links to each state agency for this information (www.abanet.org/cpr/regulation/scpd/disciplinary.html).