Originally created 07/11/98

'Best Doctors' leaving bookshelves



AIKEN -- Patients seeking expert treatment from medical specialists no longer can buy the Best Doctors in America reference book.

Now they will have to go through their insurance companies.

After compiling a database of more than 30,000 of the nation's best medical specialists for the past eight years, Best Doctors Inc. recently announced it will discontinue the popular guides. Instead, the Aiken-based firm will offer its referral service through insurance companies.

The specialist referral service decided to shift its focus from consumers to insurers because of problems with managed health care plans, which limit the patient's choice of physicians, said Stephanie Spooner, director of communications.

"For years, we published the book but people couldn't see the specialist because he wasn't in the network," she said.

The company has sold more than 30,000 copies of the Best Doctors volume at $75 each, Ms. Spooner said. The company has been featured on CBS' 60 Minutes.

Best Doctors Inc. grew out of co-founder Greg Smith's battle with an inoperable brain tumor and his struggle to find doctors to treat it. Mr. Smith and his partner Steven Naifeh, who published Best Lawyers in America, began publishing a similar guide for finding medical specialists. They asked specialists who they would refer their loved ones to if they had a certain medical condition.

Ms. Spooner said Best Doctors is negotiating contracts with several of the nation's largest insurance firms. She would not disclose the names of insurers with whom the company is talking.

"It's snowballing," she said. "When one or two insurance companies learned about us we started to see more and more interested in us."

Insurance companies could save time and money by referring patients directly to an expert physician rather than a doctor inexperienced with a certain condition, Mr. Smith said in an earlier interview. Serious cases represent 1 percent of all cases, but 30 percent of all medical spending, he said.

"It saves them millions annually in tests," Ms. Spooner said. "With experts, patients recuperate in less time."

Best Doctors said its service will reach more people at a lower cost by going through insurance companies. Policyholders would pay an estimated ten cents per month for the service. Insurance companies, in turn, would pay either a flat fee or a percentage of savings to Best Doctors for use of the database. The ultimate beneficiary will be the same as always -- the patients, according to the company's website.

Mr. Naifeh and Mr. Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, will continue to publish Best Lawyers in America, Ms. Spooner said.