I don’t know if Ruth Hillebrand ever visited Philadelphia, but her spirit is all over this year’s Top Doctors package, which was put together by senior editor Sandy Hingston. Hillebrand died in 1994 at age 67 of a rare form of cancer, which she found out about in a late-night call from a doctor who told her she had terminal mesothelioma — and then hung up. Earlier this year, more than a decade after her passing, Hillebrand’s trust made a $1.9 million donation to the Medical College of Ohio, and the Ruth Hillebrand Clinical Skills Center was born.
The curriculum being taught in Hillebrand’s name is, for lack of a better term, all about bedside manner. Medical students learn how to be compassionate and empathetic by practicing listening skills and decoding body language. Think of the times you’ve been a patient. Think of how vulnerable you were in that damn gown. (All these smart people, and they can’t come up with something that doesn’t expose your backside? Or is that the point?) Think about how often you were talked at, instead of to. Think of how off-putting the jargon was. (Not long ago, my wife had a breast cancer scare; after a series of ultrasounds and mammograms, we were told her condition was just a buildup of “parenchyma.” That’s what the doctor said: “parenchyma.” And we were too intimidated by the process and the white coat and the imperious demeanor to ask what the hell parenchyma is. Then we looked it up on the Internet. It’s tissue. A buildup of tissue. Now my wife’s nickname is “Parenchyma-Face.”)
Well, inspired by Ruth Hillebrand, we decided to go out and find doctors, programs and hospitals who put patients first — who recognize that above all, the doctor/patient relationship is just that: a relationship. In many ways, it’s tougher than ever to be a doctor. Insurance premiums are skyrocketing, medical malpractice is a rising threat, and paperwork seems more a part of the job than actually curing people. We wanted to highlight doctors who, despite those very real obstacles, recognize that it’s tougher than ever to be a patient, too, and are determined to change the current doctor/patient paradigm. Doctors who are, in short, what doctors ought to be.
Doctors like Marisa Weiss, who graces our cover. As seen in Kathleen Fifield’s portrait of her, “A Human Touch” (page 105), Weiss honors the legacy of Ruth Hillebrand with her work at Lankenau Hospital; her website, breastcancer.org; and her video, Doctor, Doctor, Lend Me Your Ear, in which she actually dons that awful tissue gown to talk directly, and comically, about how bad things have gotten between doctors and patients.
Weiss will be the first to tell you there are lots of doctors who share her commitment to reconnecting with patients. Once again, we’ve compiled a list of many of them for you. For the second straight year, we’ve turned to Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., an outside medical research firm, to survey physicians and find out who they’d send a loved one to in 56 board-certified specialties. Like last year’s, this list is more exclusive and geographically diverse than in the past. (For an in-depth methodological explanation, turn to page 142.) After last year’s list was published, we interviewed 120 local doctors to see what they thought of it; 97 reacted positively, and 23 negatively. We got feedback from them, including names of colleagues who they thought deserved consideration for the list, in an effort to further inform this year’s process.
There will always be quibbles with our list; it is, after all, a subjective snapshot in time. But between this issue and Carol Saline’s ongoing coverage of medicine in our Pulse section, our commitment to serving readers — and, thus, patients — on vital matters of health should be clear. Ruth Hillebrand’s spirit would have it no other way.