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Inside The “Top Doctor” Racket
Got $99 lying around? You can be named a “leading physician.”
Marshall Allen

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 healthcare. So I returned the call. I spoke to a cheerful salesperson named Anne at a company called Top Doctor Awards. For some reason, she believed I was a physician and, even better, worthy of one of their awards. 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.

That’s what many patients looking for a good physician assume. They figure that such 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. But medicine is complex, and there’s no simple way of determining that some doctors are better than others.

“It says you work for a company called ProPublica,” Anne said.

I responded that I did and that I was actually a journalist, not a doctor. Was that going to be a problem, or could they still give me the Top Doctor award?

There was a pause. Clearly, I had thrown a curve into her script. She regrouped quickly. 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 cherrywood with gold trim or black with chrome trim. I mulled over which vibe better fit my unique brand of medicine.

“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.”

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November 2019

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