Most of us assume that if a doctor loses his/her license to practice in one state, that same doctor couldn’t retain or get a new license to practice in a different state. But that’s not necessarily true. A recent investigation conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper and website MedPage Today uncovered laxity on the parts of the federal government, state medical licensing boards, hospitals and other organizations that are responsible for keeping patients safe from incompetent and/or dishonest physicians. For example, several doctors who had been sanctioned in one state for sexually assaulting patients were practicing without restrictions in another state.

What makes this even more disturbing is that 30 years ago, Congress passed a law establishing the National Practitioner Data Bank. Under this law, all state licensing boards are required to report any actions taken against a doctor to the data bank. Hospitals must also report disciplinary actions to the data bank, while courts are supposed to report malpractice judgments against doctors. At the same time, each state licensing board is required to review the entire data bank annually to make sure a doctor who was sanctioned in one state is not practicing unnoticed in another. Hospitals are required to check on new hires and existing practitioners. Sounds good, but studies have found poor compliance with those requirements. Fortunately, you can check out any doctor you use or are considering. Here’s how…

• Check the state licensing board. Every state must publicly disclose any action it takes against a physician. Most state boards put it on their websites. To find contact information for all state licensing boards, go to FSMB.org/contact-a-state-medical-board. You do not have to be a resident of that state to gather the information. For clues on which states to search, ask your doctor (or the practice he is associated with) for the other states where he has formerly practiced or currently practices. If you live in an area where residents frequently cross state lines for services, check all those states.

• Look for board certification. While it’s no guarantee of character, board certification ensures that a doctor meets nationally recognized standards for education, experience and skills in a specific medical specialty. To be sure your doctor is certified by a legitimate and highly regarded board, consult the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). Its specialty boards are considered the best in each specialty, and they will verify that your doctor is in good standing. Go to ABMS.org or call 866-ASK-ABMS (866-275-2267). Note: The certifying board looks at its own criteria for competence and not necessarily any license revocations.

• Ask a nurse. Nurses are great sources of information about doctors. If you know a nurse, ask about the doctor in question. You can find out about the doctor’s reputation or learn about the nurse’s direct experience with him. Also ask the nurse: “Would you use this doctor for yourself or for a family member?”

• Be direct. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask any doctor you currently use or are considering whether he has been sanctioned by any state licensing board…or ever had his hospital privileges suspended or revoked. If so, ask why. Doctors are required to answer honestly. If a doctor resists, look for another one.