Pruritus Emeritus

I am the best. Sometimes.


The fifth and last time I was listed as Best of Boston was in 2019, when I shared honors with obstetrics, ice cream, interior design, and kitchenware.

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My first time on that list was 10 years earlier, and came as a surprise. Though the magazine that runs the feature said that selections are “peer-generated,” I was never asked to evaluate any colleagues, so I don’t know who my admiring peers were or what they admired.

Three years later I was dropped from the list, for equally mysterious reasons. Maybe my acne patients did worse that year. Be that as it may, I was reinstated several years later. Perhaps my eczema outcomes surged.

How do you know when a doctor is good? I don’t need to remind you how many different ways we are evaluated. Hospitals and insurance companies monitor our prescribing practices and therapeutic outcomes. Many websites rate our performance. Read your own reviews, if you dare, penned by people who range from the totally disgruntled to the charmingly gruntled.

Reading reviews – always a mistake, like reading Internet trolls – may give you a flavor or what makes people like or dislike you. Often, their reasons are either beside the point or just wrong.

An example: (1 star out of 5): “Dr. Rockoff was terrible. He prescribed a very powerful regimen, and when I told him it was drying me out, he just insisted I keep using it.”

In fact – I was able to figure out who the patient was – my “powerful treatment” was over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide along with topical clindamycin. As for my insistence that she continue, she never came back for another visit. But she had called for refills.

You can surely come up with your own review tales.

But if patients don’t really understand how well we do, doctors are not necessarily much better at assessing colleagues. This came to mind recently when a close friend, increasingly hobbled by arthritis (you get more such friends as the years roll by) was looking into getting his knee replaced. He asked friends and family and got several names of orthopedists at respectable institutions. (I don’t know how many of them were Best of Boston, or even Best of Nashua, New Hampshire.)

The patients made these referrals because either they or people they knew had Dr. So-and-So replace their knee and had been pleased. That is nice to hear, but what does it prove? Even backup shortstops get on base sometimes.

So my friend called his rheumatologist, who recommended a knee specialist. My friend consulted that doctor, found her pleasant and personable, and liked what she had to say about the surgery and its expected aftermath.

My friend called back his rheumatologist to report his decision to go with his recommended doctor.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said the rheumatologist. “Three of my friends went to her and were very pleased.”

I am not in any way criticizing the rheumatologist. When people ask me for referrals – to internists, to plastic surgeons – I give them names of people I know or have sent patients to who had good experiences, or whom I just heard good things about. What can I really know about their diagnostic acumen or surgical dexterity?

Dr. Alan Rockoff

A useful counterexample is what happened with my cousin who underwent back surgery a while back. He was considering several specialists when he had a discussion with a younger acquaintance who was chief resident in neurosurgery at a local medical center, and had actually operated with several of the surgeons under consideration. “Don’t go to Dr A,” said the young man. “It takes him 7 hours to do that procedure. Better go to Dr. B, who gets it done in under 3. The shorter operative time makes a big difference in speed of recovery.”

That is the kind of specialized and relevant knowledge that actually matters. How many referrals can you think of that you made or heard of about which the same can be said?

In the meantime, I will return to my own Bestness, which has been frequent, though intermittent. I like to think of myself as a vintage Chardonnay. Some years I am the best. Other years, not so much. Your best bet is to consult me in one of the former.

Preferably chilled.

Dr. Rockoff, who wrote the Dermatology News column “Under My Skin,” is now semiretired, after 40 years of practice in Brookline, Mass. He served on the clinical faculty at Tufts University, Boston, and taught senior medical students and other trainees for 30 years. His second book, “Act Like a Doctor, Think Like a Patient,” is available online. Write to him at [email protected].

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