When Is the “Best Doctor” Not the Best Doctor?


Finding the best doctor may not seem like a game, but everyone loves a good riddle. Riddles are often clever and lighthearted. We chuckle (or groan!) at the answer, and sometimes the first riddle will trigger a handful more.

Two of my favorite riddles are:

  1. When is the “best doctor” not the best doctor? 
  2. When is the “best hospital” not the best hospital?

I wish I could tell you these two riddles are clever or chuckle-inducing, too. Unfortunately, their answers aren’t funny and have much more serious ramifications. 

There are two circumstances when the idea of “best” in relationship to medical professionals or facilities should be reconsidered.

Circumstance #1

“I need knee replacement surgery, so I’ve chosen the best orthopedic surgeon in town!” my neighbor Joe told me after putting up with a bum knee for years. I had to ask him, “What makes that surgeon the best? And why?”

Joe’s reply was that he asked around. “Everyone told me to call him,” he said.

What Joe couldn’t answer was “why?” As it turned out, after a bit of research, the “best orthopedic surgeon in town” did have great ratings and a good track record—for shoulder surgery.

Now, that may not seem like too big a stretch. If a surgeon is good at replacing shoulders, they might be good with knee replacement surgery, too. But how can we know? It’s a little like saying that just because your auto mechanic has a great reputation for rebuilding a transmission, they might also do a great job replacing a broken axle or fixing your steering. Or, if a lawyer is good at drawing up your last will and testament, they might also be able to keep you out of prison….

It’s possible that each of these professionals is able to perform both tasks equally well. However, there is no way to confirm until they carry both tasks out. We really don’t want to find out the hard way that their skills aren’t as strong in all situations.

Understandably, I think we all want “the best” when it comes to our healthcare. But, we must be sure we’re comparing apples to apples, and applying that label under the right circumstances.

So, back to riddle #1: When is the “best doctor” not really the best doctor? The answer: When their area of specialty is really in something other than what you need. This is a very important distinction.

Circumstance #2

The answer to riddle #2 will also inform our question about the “Best Doctor” but

When Joe first went in search of an orthopedic for his knee replacement, I remember that he posted a question to our community’s Facebook page. “Where can I find a good surgeon for my knee replacement?”

Neighbor Jean replied quickly. “Find a surgeon from XXX Regional Hospital. They are the best choice for knee replacement. I read that on their billboard!”

I was totally blown away that Jean actually made a recommendation based on just the hospital’s marketing. Furthermore, the official hospital ratings had just come out—the objective, well-researched ones (more on that in a minute)—revealing that the hospital had a relatively high infection rate…making that hospital one of the last places Joe should choose.

The power of marketing

You might be surprised at how easy it is to be taken in by some of the marketing you see and hear. In fact, your opinions may also unconsciously be formed by that marketing, even if you don’t realize it. I’m guessing there is one hospital in your locale that claims it’s the best for heart problems, right? Or, the best for diabetes care. The list can go on.

You may believe the hospital’s claims, and not realize that your beliefs don’t necessarily stem from facts. In actuality, your beliefs are influenced by TV, radio, internet, or billboard advertising. Your opinions might also be guided by stories you see about the hospital in the newspaper, online, or being broadcast on the news.

In addition to the hospitals’ own marketing, there are also well-known publications that publish their “best of” lists every year. Best doctors, best hospitals, best colleges, etc. However, did you know that for many publications, the “best of” placement can be purchased? In fact, these lists could be another, more discreet, way that a hospital advertises to you. 

Most of us are quick to believe the marketing without even realizing it. To avoid this potential trap, we should make sure that the doctor we’re seeking has a reputation established based on what it is we need them to do for us, not based on a billboard. It’s also important to assess other aspects of any doctor you may see. Do they accept your health insurance? Can you get in to see them? When you meet them or speak to them on the phone or over Zoom, do you feel you can trust them? The “best” doctor for another patient might not necessarily mean they are the “best” doctor for you! 

The same is true for hospitals. There are ways to find out what their success rates are, their patient satisfaction, their infection rates, and more. For example, as part of the Medicare program, the federal government publishes hospital ratings, including star ratings for quality and customer satisfaction. Private companies and nonprofit watchdog groups also publish hospital ratings and reviews. These are more concrete measures you can use to determine if the hospital will be right for you!

If you have trouble with your vetting process, then you can consider contacting a patient advocate or care manager to help you. That’s what they are “best” at!

So now we know the answers to our riddles. Don’t be misled by the title of “best!” It can be incredibly subjective. .

Instead, do a little homework, or call an advocate to get the right answers for you.


Update March 2019: as published by Marshall Allen, ProPublica: I’m a Journalist. Apparently, I’m Also One of America’s “Top Doctors.”

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