I’m a Journalist. Apparently, I’m Also One of America’s “Top Doctors.”
My eyes narrowed when the woman on the voice message told me to call about my “Top Doctor” award.
They needed to “make sure everything’s accurate” before they sent me my plaque, she said.
It was a titillating irony. I don’t have a medical degree, and I’m not a physician. But I am an investigative journalist who specializes in health care. So I leaned forward in my seat with some anticipation when I returned the call last year. I spoke to a cheerful saleswoman named Anne at a company on New York’s Long Island that hands out the Top Doctor Awards. For some reason, she believed I was a physician and, even better, worthy of one of their awards. Puzzled and amused, I took notes.
I asked how I had been selected. My peers had nominated me, she said buoyantly, and my patients had reviewed me. I must be a “leading physician,” she said.
At this point, of course, it’d be tempting to dismiss the call, and the award, as ridiculous. But I knew such awards are the perfect dovetail of doctors’ egos and patients’ desperate need to find a good physician. Many patients assume that the awards are backed by rigorous vetting and standards to ensure only the “best” doctors are recognized. Hospitals and physicians lend credibility to the facade by hanging the awards in their offices and promoting them on their websites.
And now, for reasons still unclear, Top Doctor Awards had chosen me — and I was almost perfectly the wrong person to pick. I’ve spent the last 13 years reporting on health care, a good chunk of it examining how our health care system measures the quality of doctors.
Medicine is complex, and there’s no simple way of saying some doctors are better than others. Truly assessing the performance of doctors, from their diagnostic or surgical outcomes to the satisfaction of their patients, is challenging work. And yet, for-profit companies churn out lists of “Super” or “Top” or “Best” physicians all the time, displaying them in magazine ads, online listings or via shiny plaques or promotional videos the companies produce for an added fee.
On my call with Anne from Top Doctors, the conversation took a surreal turn.
“It says you work for a company called ProPublica,” she said, blithely. At least she had that right.
I responded that I did and that I was actually a journalist, not a doctor. Is that going to be a problem? I asked. Or can you still give me the “Top Doctor” award?
There was a pause. Clearly, I had thrown a baffling curve into her script. She quickly regrouped. “Yes,” she decided, I could have the award.
Anne’s bonus, I thought, must be volume based.
Then we got down to business. The honor came with a customized plaque, with my choice of cherry wood with gold trim or black with chrome trim. I mulled over which vibe better fit my unique brand of medicine: the more traditional cherry or the more modern black?
“There’s a nominal fee for the recognition,” she said, reverting to the stilted cadence of someone reading a script. “It’s a reduced rate. Just $289. We accept Visa, Mastercard and American Express.”
That sounded a little spendy to get past the ProPublica bean counters, even as a unique reporting cost. I hesitated.
“The plaque commemorates your achievements and more importantly communicates the achievements to your patients,” she said, moving in to close the sale. “It’s a great achievement. I would hate for you to miss it. I can get it to you right now for $99.”
I accepted the offer, and that’s how I became a “Top Doctor.” It beats years of hard work and drowning in debt from medical school. And it gives me just that right amount of heft when I dole out advice to snuffling colleagues in the newsroom: Go home before we all get sick.
Obviously, the Top Doctor Awards company has questionable standards. But it made me curious about the other awards you see online or dominating entire issues of local lifestyle magazines. There’s Castle Connolly Top Doctors, Super Doctors, The Best Docs and many more. The more I looked, the more companies I found heaping praise on doctors and then charging them to market the honor. What criteria are they using? And who are these doctors who accept the awards? I wondered what they would say when I told them that I, too, was one of the chosen elites…. Continue Reading