This is how it starts, and it seems pretty straightforward: You, a physician, get a letter 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 would seem to have wide appeal and patients really are impressed. Maybe, however, 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.

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

That’s not to say 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.

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. He was asked more information to finalize his award. Being a health-focused investigative journalist, he listened.

Despite his professional transparency, his award selection continued to move forward. He received a Top Doctor plaque in the mail.

Even the people who dole out these awards, it seems, don’t take them as seriously as patients do. Some physicians consider this kind of honorific a form of deception and refuse to accept them. But others just fork over the money — their competition is doing it, after all, 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, then, puts the onus on the physicians themselves on whether to keep buying in and perpetuating the recognition.

Next time you get one of those letters in the mail, be sure and do some research on the company offering the award before sending out a check.

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