Should you pay any attention to those “Top Doc” lists?

Every year, glossy metro magazines parade out their annual lists of “top” and “best” doctors. These lists make money for the magazines. And they provide PR fodder for business-savvy health systems, hospitals, and boutique medical practices.

But should you pay any attention?

Many doctors feel that these lists are just one big popularity contest.

For example, many magazines partner with Castle Connolly Medical LTD in New York. They ask physicians to nominate other doctors who, in their opinion, are the “best” or “most influential” in their fields. Castle Connolly then investigates to determine qualifications, licensing, and any disciplinary history.

Doctors can’t nominate themselves. And they don’t actually pay directly to appear on the list. But still–the “list” is somewhat sketchy. I know of a dentist who gets on Baltimore’s top-docs list every year by making a deal with his old dental school buddies to nominate each other.

Even if the doctors get onto the list legitimately, the lines are blurry. Doctors can also pay to advertise in the magazine’s special edition to get a little more bang for their buck. They can also pay for plaques that showcase their honor.

Overall, it’s a tidy little business for Castle Connolly.

Actually, Castle Connolly invited me to the annual “Top Docs” awards dinner at the New Yorker Hotel in mid-town New York City in 2009.

For a brief period in the late 1920s, the New Yorker held the distinction of being the tallest building in New York. Then, the Empire State Building quickly surpassed it.

In any case, that night in 2009, I remember the New Yorker Hotel’s outsized building matched the outsized egos on display. I also remember thinking they’d better have some good orthopedic surgeons in attendance to treat all the elbows that doctors might break by patting themselves on the back.

Former Secretary of Health & Human Services Lewis Sullivan was in the audience. I had worked with him, and we chatted for a bit. Then, he spoke to the audience about some public health education programs originally advanced by the former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and me. A few of the Washington D.C. bootlickers in the audience insisted the programs were new.

Truthfully, the medical marketing departments pay more attention to these lists than anyone else does. In fact, once this list comes out, hospitals and health systems quickly issue press releases touting “their” own “top docs.”

Some physicians who practice in competitive fields and locations say making such a list can help boost their practices. Others who already have successful practices say they don’t even want their names to appear on these lists because they don’t need, or don’t want, to attract more patients.

Of course, the misguided Obamacare mandates now flood many doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, hospitals, and clinics with more patients than they are equipped to handle.

In other magazines, doctors “pay to play.” In other words, doctors buy ad space in the magazine, and in return, they get their names on the list. They can also get a printed certificate to hang in their waiting rooms. (Of course, most readers and patients don’t realize this is how the system works.)

In some cases, doctors can also buy into a PR opportunity and use the ranking organization’s logo on print and marketing materials. It’s kind of like Good Housekeeping’s “Seal of Approval.”

Like many doctors, I often receive “congratulatory” letters in the mail saying I made it onto one list or another. They’re basically solicitation letters trying to sell me a certificate, plaque, or membership listing.

And here’s what is perhaps most frustrating…

It’s really quite simple to assess the credentials and accomplishments of doctors truly at the top of their field. Top hospitals and universities do it all the time as part of the hiring process. Top doctors simply submit their resumes, with credentials, accomplishments, and lists of publications, to peer-review committees.

Universities also use a data-based, peer-reviewed process to appoint faculty, make promotions, and award adjunct professorships. I passed through such a process to receive my appointments as adjunct Full Professor at both the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University.

Never did Georgetown or Penn ask if I made it on a “top doc” list.

So how do you know who’s really a top doc?

Well–I always look at whether other doctors want to learn from a doctor. For example, has the doctor written a textbook(s)? Do young doctors-in-training use this textbook? Does the doctor teach or publish on the side, as “adjunct” faculty at a local medical school?

Find out what medical textbooks and research studies doctors have published. For example, my textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, has been used widely to teach doctors for the past 20 years. The latest, 5th edition, just came out. Make a real investment in holistic medicine, and get one for your doctor.

Apparently, Medicare is still working on a quality rating system for doctors. But since the government takes 10 years to move forward on any project, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, try finding a real top doc the old-fashioned way. Ask around. Ask your friends. See who really has a doctor who listens, and is listened to.