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.