The Checkup

As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, the cover story of this month’s issue is our annual survey on the best local doctors for women. I am, much to my parents’ chagrin, neither a doctor nor a woman, but I do have more than a passing interest in the topic. Not long ago, my sister—who is not only a woman, but one of my favorite women—had a health scare, the result of a bad reaction to a common medication. She is fine now, but the episode was an illuminating and, at times, infuriating window into the byzantine world of modern health care.

When my sister started feeling unwell, her MD told her to simply wait; she would start feeling better soon enough. But she didn’t. She began feeling worse, and eventually, after politely informing her doc that her body was going to hell in a handcart, she was directed to a teaching hospital near her home. She underwent a battery of tests and bounced from specialist to specialist, each more confident than the last they could diagnose the problem.

And yet none of them could figure out what was wrong. Worse was that some of those doctors were both clueless and dismissive of the fears my sister expressed regarding her steadily worsening symptoms. One doctor was particularly memorable: After my sister—who tends to complain about as often as a can of paint—explained that she was experiencing acute pain, the doctor told her that this bit of news wasn’t “clinically significant.” I’d have to put a Frisbee-size warning sticker on the cover of this magazine were I to accurately report my sister’s response, but suffice is to say it was a colorful version of “Well, sir, it feels rather significant.”

My sister eventually did what any smart, scared, frustrated, and pissed-off American woman would do: She worked the system. She called friends, family, colleagues to find out if they knew anybody who knew of a good doctor. Somebody—a college friend’s parents, in fact—did know a hotshot doc, and she soon got in to see him. This doctor did not, it should be noted, have any more answers than any of the other physicians she had seen, at least not at first. But he did something almost as important. He explained why he didn’t know what was wrong, and he told her she was not crazy for being as scared and pissed-off as she had been.

I thought a lot about that episode as we put this month’s cover package together. My sister was lucky. She turned out to be fine, and she happened to know some people who could help. But what if she hadn’t been fine, or what if she hadn’t had such a network? How do you navigate a system that so often seems designed to baffle even the most informed consumers?

Those are the kind of questions that we asked as we compiled our annual survey. What we’ve essentially tried to do is what most people, like my sister, do when looking for a good physician: we reached out to those we thought would know best—in our case, more than 5,000 local doctors themselves—to find out whom they would recommend. We wanted to know which doctors they would send their wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, and nieces to for medical care. The result: a comprehensive list of 228 top docs in 28 specialties, from cardiology to psychiatry. All of which, I have to say, feels pretty significant.

Andrew Putz