Is a top doctor award actually worth it?

By Jonathan Ford Hughes | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published September 16, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • The only top doctor awards that are worth having are ones that use nominations from peers and colleagues.

  • These awards can be useful in establishing trust with patients and in word-of-mouth marketing.

  • In the age of the internet, your online reviews carry more weight than top doctor awards.

Many doctors likely have received a phone call similar to the one that Marshall Allen received.

You’ve just been selected as one of the region’s top doctors, the salesperson on the line said. Would you like to purchase a commemorative plaque for your practice?

The only problem is, Allen isn’t and never was a doctor. He’s an investigative journalist from ProPublica, and yet he was still able to purchase the plaque—even after telling the sales rep his occupation. You can read all about his deep dive into the pitfalls of top doctor accolades here.

Allen’s award prompts some important questions: In the age of fake news, is it still worth it to chase after these accolades to place on your practice walls? Are these awards vital methods of building doctor-patient trust, or merely a way of stroking a doctor’s ego? And from a pure business standpoint, are top-doctor placements a marketing tactic worth pursuing, or has the internet age made them obsolete?

Separating the good from the bad

The key distinction revealed by the ProPublica piece is that not all of the rating agencies are equal. Some are peer-reviewed and others are pay-to-play. Stewart Gandolf, CEO of Healthcare Success, says aim for the former if you’re making top-doctor honors a part of your marketing strategy.

"It’s pretty varied in terms of what you’re actually getting. If you have to pay to be included, it’s not the same as being nominated by your peers."

Stewart Gandolf

But even that’s no guarantee. Allen was told he was nominated by his peers. It falls to the doctor to do a little digging and find out how credible those peers are and if they exist at all.

Laura Mikulski, VP of Business Development at Physician Referral Marketing, had a similar opinion.

“It’s often not a professional award by any stretch of the imagination,” says Mikulski. “Informed consumers know that doctors can buy their way in.”

However, both experts said that these awards do serve a purpose when incorporated appropriately into your practice’s marketing efforts.

Raising brand awareness

“It’s really a trust signal,” says Mikulski.

These awards help make patients feel comfortable with your level of capability. They also provide patients with bragging rights, she explains. If a patient has a positive experience with you, they’re more likely to recommend you to friends and family, adding that you are one of the top doctors in the area. It feels good for the patient to say that they’ve chosen one of the best doctors in the region for their ailment. It’s also a useful way for the patient to communicate that they trust the doctor when recommending them to friends or family.

According to Gandolf, many of these lists are formed in partnership with regional or statewide magazines. Top doctor issues tend to be among the most-read issues of the year, he adds.

“Patients see it. Patients will recognize you,” he says.

Location and type of practice

Gandolf and Mikulski say that top doctor honors are a pursuit best left to certain kinds of specialists.

“PCPs, ENTs, and podiatrists: I don’t see them generating as many referrals from these lists,” says Mikulski. “Awards really drive significant volume as well as brand awareness for orthopedic groups, orthopedic physicians, cardiologists, neurologists, and plastic surgeons. But those doctors are very competitive and highly specialized. They also offer services that people are more willing to travel for.”

Gandolf adds that the more “consumer direct” a practice is, the more important these top doctor lists become. For example, a neurologist would be less consumer direct. Patients looking for a neurologist often will be referred by another physician or will find one through their insurance company. Plastic surgeons, who perform cosmetic procedures and generally operate outside of insurance, would be more consumer direct. Any accolade that differentiates one from another could be beneficial.

Where you’re practicing also likely will determine if your top doctor award generates any referrals, says Mikulski. Based on her experience, doctors in competitive urban markets tend to get more referrals from awards.

“In less-populated areas, it doesn’t make a dent,” she says “In fact, most of the time, nobody sees it.”

Other important factors

In the age of online patient reviews and reputation management, Gandolf and Mikulski say that top doctor honors matter less. Having stellar reviews on Google and Vitals are far more important.

“With the ubiquitousness now of the internet, top doctor awards are nice to have but it’s not essential,” says Gandolf.

Mikulski adds that awards should be one component of a broader marketing strategy.

"I tend to see it as the cherry on top of somebody’s marketing campaign rather than the focus of the marketing campaign."

Stewart Gandolf

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