You have to search far and wide to find someone who does not think their doctor is one of the best. Despite all the criticisms aimed at the health care industry in general, a surprisingly high percentage of people who have faced major medical issues seem to have nothing but praise for their personal physician. “He was really thorough and methodical — there was a reason for everything he did,” you hear over and again from grateful patients. “And he explained everything.”
Of course the people who might have the most to complain about in terms of their physician’s performance are not around to complain.
That heroic status came to mind when I browsed through the November edition of New Jersey Monthly magazine, its annual compilation of “Top Doctors.” Poring over the listings of 573 “base physicians” in 56 specialities, I was struck by how few Princeton area physicians made the list. My tired eyes could pick only six from the list:
Ronald G. Nahass, infectious disease;
Mark A. Schaeffer, internal medicine (and once my general practitioner, who provided one of my 60 rules of life published on my 60th birthday: Walk 30 minutes a day — it won’t prevent clogged arteries, but it will at least alert you to a problem before it hits you while you are sitting at your desk).
Peter I. Yi, oncology (and subject of a June 21, 2006, U.S. 1 cover story on “Patients and their Heroes”).
Edward M. Soffen of Jamesburg, radiation oncology.
Rachel P. Dultz, breast oncology surgery.
Walter T. Gutowski III, orthopedic surgery (who treated the broken foot of U.S. 1’s Preview editor, Jamie Saxon, who now — of course — sings his praises).
Given all the praise we reserve for our physicians, I was surprised that such a small number of New Jersey Monthly’s “Top Doctors” come from Princeton.
So I checked out the survey’s methodology. The magazine asked a polling group at Monmouth University to conduct the survey, which initially reached out to more than 20,000 doctors who have been licensed in New Jersey for five years or more. From that group 2,296 doctors submitted their choices of top physicians. Since not every doctor — presumably — would have a recommendation in every category, it might not take many votes to get on the “Top Docs” list. In fact, the magazine wouldn’t list anyone unless he or she had at least 10 votes. Not surprisingly, most of the winners were in northern New Jersey, where the magazine is most widely circulated.
New Jersey Monthly’s list is based on doctors’ recommendations. If you polled patients, you might get some different names.
While I was up in Red Sox nation recently my original cardiologist, Dr. Abraham George, died of a brain tumor at the age of 57. I had known he was ill for the past year or so — he had sent a forthright letter to all his patients informing them of the illness, vowing to fight it as best he could, but telling them that the battle would prevent him from offering the best care that the patients deserved.
It was sad news nonetheless, and I pored over the tributes that appeared in print and online. Even given the premise of this column, that most all of us revere the physician who successfully treats our life-threatening illnesses, I was nonetheless impressed by the range of admiration for Dr. George.
The kind words came from other physicians who worked with him; nurses who reported to him (“compassionate, dedicated, knowledgeable, professional, old fashioned, and by the book,” wrote one); former patients (of course); and even a patient of another doctor for whom George had “covered” briefly, resulting in a lasting impression (“he approached each medical emergency in such a calm and reassuring manner that it took the pressure and nervousness from the situation”).
The doctor’s own calmness was reflected in his office nurse of 20 years, Patti Arnesen, a master of multi-tasking who never seemed to miss a detail. She too was praised in the tributes.
One letter to the Trenton Times caught my eye. It was from Russ Walsh of Morrisville, PA:
“I first met Dr. George in 1993 while I was lying flat on a gurney in the emergency room of Mercer Medical Center. It was my poor luck to have suffered a serious heart incident, but my great good fortune that Dr. George was the cardiologist on call that night. He was my doctor ever since, and his skill as a physician has helped to bring me back to good health.
“It is not his considerable talents as a doctor that I will most remember about Dr. George, however. It is his great kindness, patience, and respect for the patient that resonate with me as I remember him on this sad day.”
I had practically the same story when I ended up in the Mercer Medical intensive care unit, stuck with a catheter in the femoral artery of my groin awaiting an ambulance ride to St. Mary Medical Center in Newtown for an angioplasty that would hopefully open up a 95 percent blocked artery.
By then I was technically in the care of equally caring physicians from Mercer Bucks Cardiology, the doctors who did the angiograms and angioplasties. But awaiting the transfer I was in no-man’s land. Dr. George “just happened” to stop by to offer a word of encouragement. At the end of that ordeal they were all my heroes, and the subject of a long story in U.S. 1’s 2002 Health and Fitness issue.
When we patients make our recommendations for a poll of “Top Docs” we can include some criteria the physicians might omit in their poll: Kindness, patience, respect for the patient, and an office staff to match.