Once announced, the prestige of a "Top Doctor" award attracts patients, and money, to doctors and hospital systems.
Fleetwood said, awards can "bring patients in, and it can convince patients who are in your waiting room that you are the physician that, in fact, they want to see."
And so hospitals spend a great deal of effort to get as many of their doctors on some "Top Doctor" lists, earning bragging rights for the hospitals, especially in competitive city markets with multiple hospital systems.
A hospital employee from a large urban hospital who wishes to remain anonymous told ABC News that a senior hospital administrator sent an email offering a $300 American Express gift card to the first 100 doctors who nominated their peers for a top doctor award on the Castle Connolly website, spending a staggering $30,000 on gift cards to try to increase the number of top doctors chosen from their hospital. John Connolly told ABC News "I've never heard of anybody offering or receiving money. If you've heard of it, you ought to expose them."
Castle Connolly insists doctors "cannot and do not pay to be listed," but Castle Connolly does admit they do get money from American Registry, the plaque company that sells actual plaques to doctors.
And full access to profiles of top doctors on the Castle Connolly website is free to the public only for doctors whose hospitals have paid a minimum of $11,000 to become part of Castle Connolly's 'Partnership for Excellence Hospital' program.
Connolly said hospitals that pay the $11,000 fee "are paying to make the physician bios available to consumers," and said hospitals that pay more than $11,000 are able to promote more of their departments or centers on the Castle Connolly website.
Doctors Buy Their Way on to TopDocs.com
The website "TopDocs.com" is not affiliated with Castle Connolly or Consumers' Research Council of America and does not claim to rank doctors in any way. But a spot on TopDocs.com is available to any physician who pays for membership, regardless of true top doctor status.
In a telephone interview with ABC News, Mr. Michael Dougherty, President and CEO of TopDocs.com, said "a couple of hundred" physicians have paid to be on their website.
Documents obtained by ABC News show the cost to buy a spot on the website ranges anywhere from $1500 to $10,000, in addition to an annual fee of $1600.
Dr. Sepkowitz said, "here we are awarding stars to whoever can pay the highest dollar rather than according to a system of worthiness."
In reference to the actual name "TopDocs.com," Dougherty told ABC News, "We are not inferring in any way that the doctors in the site are top doctors."
But when asked if his website's name could be misleading patients into thinking they are viewing profiles of actual top doctors, Dougherty said he "has never had anybody say they are confused about it."
Fleetwood said these sound-alike, look-alike awards "can be very misleading…and potentially bring a patient to a doctor to whom they wouldn't otherwise go."