As It Happens

How a reporter with no medical degree obtained a 'Top Doctor' award

After receiving a voicemail congratulating him on being named a "Top Doctor," ProPublica investigative reporter Marshall Allen decided to look in to the company offering him the award.

ProPublica's Marshall Allen says the company sold him the award even after he admitted he wasn't a doctor

Marshall Allen, an investigative reporter with ProPublica, paid $99 to receive his 'Top Doctor' award. (Submitted by Marshall Allen)

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Forget years of medical school and staggering debt. Turns out all you need to be named one of America's "Top Doctors" is a phone and a few hundred bucks. 

That's how journalist Marshall Allen came to claim his prize. He recently wrote about the process for ProPublica

Marshall Allen spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from Fanwood, N.J. Here is some of their conversation.

What does it look like, this award that you have received?

Well, I wish I could say that it looks as prestigious as it sounds. But it's actually a piece of particle board that's been spray-painted with some gold paint around the outside, and then it has some cheap kind of strange clip-art on it.

It has my name, "Marshall Allen, Top Doctor."  And then for my specialty, they put investigator, because I couldn't put cardiologist, or neurologist, or anesthesiologist or something legitimate. I had to be honest.

Marshall Allen is ProPublica investigative reporter and definitely not a doctor. (Submitted by Marshall Allen)

What degree do you actually have?

My undergrad is in English, and then I have a graduate degree in theology. 

But you are not a doctor.

I am not a doctor, no. But I got one of these Top Doctor awards.

And I don't know if you have these ... in Canada, but in the United States, doctors, you know, they're very into promoting themselves.

So these companies create these awards. They call them, like, Best Doctor awards, or Super Doctors is another one, believe it or not — which makes it sound like they've got a cape, you know, and they're flying around saving patients.

It's a very big marketing thing for doctors to receive these awards. 

How did you learn that you were being celebrated as a top doctor? 

Well, the awards have some dubious standards. 

I actually got a voicemail from one of these companies, saying "Congratulations ... on being a top doctor. We just want to verify your information for your award."

So I called them and spoke to a woman named Anne.

I did ask her, "Well, how did I get this award? Like, how did you decide to pick me?"

And she said, "Oh, well, one of your peers must have nominated you."

And she said, "You must be a leading physician."

And I said, "Well, that's amazing that you would have that information on me."

And she said, "It says here you work for a company called ProPublica."

"ProPublica," I said, "is actually ... a journalism organization."

So I kind of tentatively asked her, I said, "Is it going to be a problem, or can I still have the Top Doctor award?"

It was clear she hadn't ever encountered this type of situation before. And so I was taking her a little off her script.

But she just paused for a minute and then she said, "No that'll be fine. We can still give it to you."

This company is obviously a total scam.- Marshall Allen, ProPublica journalist 

At what point did they ask you for your credit card?

As you can imagine, that comes pretty early on in the process. You know, if you're not willing to give it up, they're not that interested in you.

She said, "Well, the awards start at $389.... that was for the large plaque. Or you could have a smaller plaque for $289.

I hesitated because, you know, I can imagine this expense on my expense report at ProPublica. 

And as soon as I hesitated, she jumped right in and lowered the price to $99.

She said, "I wouldn't want money to come between you and this prestigious award."

And I whipped out my ProPublica credit card and paid it.

You then proceeded to try and find out how many other prestigious top doctors you share this award with — not just with this company, but with others. What did you learn?

This company is obviously a total scam. I mean, to be giving me a Top Doctor award is obviously absurd.

But there are other companies that are not quite as scammy. And by that, it doesn't mean that I think what they're doing is especially meaningful.

But they will actually gather nominations from doctors. They will actually verify that the doctor is licensed to doctor, and that they are board-certified, and they have the specialty that they have.

And they were basing it off of a sort of a nomination process, which I would say is easy to game.

You contacted some of the doctors who are 'Top Doctors' with this particular group, and you didn't get many callbacks, but you did get one doctor that you spoke with. He has a wall full of such plaques. What did he tell you?

He said, "I'm sort of that echelon of doctor, and so for me, it's not a surprise when someone wants to give me a Top Doctor award."

And you told him that you [are] an English literature grad and you got it.

And he said, "Well that might be an indication that there's a problem." 

Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A edited for length and clarity.