“Dear Dr._____, Well Done! From the most trusted resource in healthcare, ______ is honored to announce your selection as a 2019 Top Doctor. Be sure to put your 2019 award prominently on display. It’s sure to impress.”

This is how it starts, and it seems pretty straightforward: You, a physician, get a letter like the one above saying you’ve been named a “Top Doctor” or “Best Doctor” or “Super Doctor” or the like. All you have to do is pay the sender for a plaque to hang on your wall and a listing in their top doctor guidebook. Nothing more to it, and you get instant respectability and your practice grows.

Based on the amount of top doctor boasting that goes on across the internet and on office walls, the formula has wide appeal and patients really are impressed. Yet, maybe you don’t feel as incredibly proud of this award as the letter preceding it suggests you should. Why is that?

Perhaps you have some perspective on these kinds of awards that patients don’t. For example, you know they don’t quite have the heft of other peer nominated awards a neurologist might receive like the Kenneth M. Viste, Jr., MD, Patient Advocate of the Year Award, or the Mridha Spirit of Neurology Award (awards no one outside of neurology will have likely even heard of).

As for top doctor awards, maybe you are not even sure exactly how and by whom you were selected.

It’s not to say that top doctor awards have no value. There is some form of selection, and a lot of doctors don’t get these awards and are never nominated. The companies that give these awards claim to have rigorous peer nomination and review processes. This may well be true for some of them. Not so, as you’ll see, for others.

Earlier this year, Propublica journalist Marshall Allen poked some big holes in the legitimacy of one company’s review process. He (not a physician) was given a Top Doctor award. He didn’t seek it out, either. They came to him claiming they just needed to get some more information to finalize his award. Being a health focused investigative journalist, he listened.

He told them that he was not a doctor and was, in fact, a journalist, and they nonetheless continued to move his award forward. Not long after, he received his Top Doctor plaque in the mail. Allen writes that he later spoke to John Connolly, a co-founder of Castle Connolly, another of these award companies (not the one that sent him the award). Allen writes that Connolly was good humored about the whole thing, saying, “I hope you’re not doing any surgery.”

Connolly set his company apart from many others out there. He did, however, give this qualifier, “We don’t claim they are the best. We say they are ‘among the best’ and ones we have screened carefully.”

It appears that even the people that dole out these awards don’t take them as seriously as patients seem to. Some physicians say this is a form of outright deception and refuse to accept these awards when they come their way. Others just fork over the money because their competition is doing it and they don’t want their patients to think less of them. What is an ethical physician to do?

Healthcare can be scary and overwhelming for patients. They need ways to help them navigate the system and find the best doctor for them, and looking through Top-, Best-, and Super doctor listings can be a way to do that. This means it is probably up to the physicians themselves, whether to keep buying in and perpetuating them. So, next time you get one of those letters in the mail, do a little research on the company offering the award before sending out a check.

Stay up-to-date with the latest Neurology Insights content