Why This Isn’t Armageddon

DrRich | July 28th, 2011 - 10:19 am

Podcast:

We are, the pundits tell us, staring down the barrel of an economic catastrophe. By this time next week, we may all be huddled in our darkened hovels, breaking up furniture for our meager fires, roasting the family dog for our sustenance, and dreading the likely invasion by the great Canadian menace.*

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*By cutting government spending and not raising taxes, the Canadians have not only turned a deep recession into an economic boom, but have set an embarrassing example which our leaders in Washington and our press have taken great pains not to notice. The Canadians indeed are a menace.
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But fear not. DrRich is here to assure his readers that, despite what you’ve been told, this isn’t Armageddon. He offers three proofs for this assurance.

First, the debt limit is a meaningless fiction.

The term debt “limit” implies that there is some limit to the amount of borrowing which we can do; that we may borrow money up to a certain and well-defined point, and no further. But history tells us this is absurd.

Each and every time we decide we’d like to spend more money than the debt limit says we can spend, we simply increase the debt limit. We have blithely blown past dozens of supposed debt limits in recent years, with nary a glance behind us.

DrRich is not sure why we have a debt limit at all. At some point, he supposes, somebody determined that publishing a debt limit would convince people (which people? the voters? the credit-rating agencies? the Chinese?) that we actually have some sort of built-in controls to our fiscal profligacy. But surely, after decades of treating our debt limits with less regard than one would treat speed bumps during a police chase, nobody can actually believe that we would honor those limits, ever, under any circumstances. It is obvious that the only thing debt limits can accomplish is to create transient, artificial fiscal crises, like the one we are all enjoying now.

The only logical solution to our current crisis is to simply eliminate debt limits once and for all. We would not be giving up anything substantial, since no debt limit has ever been honored nor ever will be. Debt limits clearly do no good; they only cause trouble.

So DrRich offers this solution, this change we can all believe in: Eliminate the debt limit altogether.

No problem which has such a simple and happy solution can be Armageddon.

The second reason this is not Armageddon is: One cannot schedule Armageddon.

The current debt ceiling, the one we’re going to exceed on Tuesday, is $14.3 trillion. The President wants it increased by another $2 trillion or so, enough to delay the next debt ceiling crisis until after his re-election. This, of course, is understandable. The Republicans, it appears, would like to increase the debt limit by a lesser amount, so that the next crisis will occur at a time more to their convenience. This is also politically logical.

The point here is that, by simple manipulation of the value of the meaningless fiction known as the debt limit, we have full control over scheduling the next debt crisis which will threaten our markets, economy, &c.

A feature of Armageddon upon which everyone can agree is that it cannot be scheduled. Therefore, this is not Armageddon.

The third reason this is not Armageddon is: The amounts of money we’re talking about are too trivial.

Everyone is arguing over the questions of whether we ought to leave the debt limit at $14 trllion, or increase it by another $2 trllion or so, and whether we ought to cut spending and/or raise taxes by a mere $100 billion a year or so. And the results of these arguments, we are told, will determine whether or not, in a few days, the skies will split asunder and the seas will boil away, and Old Farts like DrRich, suddenly bereft of our God-given entitlements, will immediately be reduced to dining on cockroach-kabobs toasted over a smouldering dung fire.

But worrying so much about increasing our debt by another $2 trillion (an amount so massive, so huge, as to be unimaginable to mere mortals) is akin to worrying about having another smoke as one lies dying of lung cancer – it sure won’t help, but either way, the outcome is the same.

Our debt limit, as huge and unmanageable as it is, is not only a fictional construct, but it serves as a soothing distraction from our real fiscal problem – the one that really does promise Armageddon.

Our unfunded liabilities, over the next few decades, for the things our society has promised and is obligated by law to shell out for us Old Farts – things like Social Security and Medicare – is at least $62 trillion, and some have projected double that amount. Now, there’s a real problem.

We can’t talk about that, though. If a politician proposes the first, meager step towards finding a solution to that, they will show up in a TV ad pushing sweet old ladies off a cliff.

In any case, we are not facing Armageddon next week.

That’s for later.

Stock Up On Fancy Feast While You Can

DrRich | July 24th, 2011 - 4:22 pm

Podcast:

While all the Republicans and Democrats in Washington are spending all these fine summer weekends fighting over the debt ceiling, and so far have absolutely nothing to show for it, the smart people at the New York Times have gone ahead and solved the whole debt problem for us.

Blaring at us from the front page of today’s Sunday Review, in huge, bright red print, we see the following chain of logic: A 20% tax on soft drinks will produce a 20% reduction in consumption, which will prevent 1.5 million people from becoming obese, which will prevent 400,000 cases of diabetes – yielding $30 billion in health savings.

This revelation leaves DrRich slapping his forehead and wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Simply use the tax code and the regulatory muscle of the Central Authority to change human behavior in the proper manner, and everything will fall into place.

It takes a special kind of person to believe that human behavior is so predictable, and so controllable, that one can actually titrate in such a manner the amount of obesity that exists in a society, and therefore, titrate the cost of healthcare. It takes a special kind of person to believe that, simply by tweaking a specific tax here, or adding a specific regulation there, one’s actions will yield precisely the response predicted by the “experts,” and that this response will translate precisely down a complex chain of assumptions (based on selective analysis, conjecture and wishful thinking) to yield cost savings anything similar to those predicted, and that the cascade of results (not being subject to any vagaries of human nature) will not have all manner of unintended consequences. That special kind of person is called a Progressive.

Let’s say that some really smart operative in the Obama administration, reading today’s Times, takes it into his head to solve the obesity crisis, the healthcare crisis, and the debt crisis all in one brilliant stroke, and accordingly, gets the President to appoint the entire New York Times Editorial Staff as the country’s new Czar of Food. These fine folks, sensing a once in a lifetime opportunity and not wanting to squander it on such small potatoes as a softdrink tax, decide to go all out. They institute large, prohibitive taxes on ALL the foods consumed by our society that contribute to our obesity. As a result, the only foodstuffs that remain untaxed are fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish. (And, considering the possibility that one or more of the NYT editorial staffers may very well be vegans, DrRich is not sure about the fish.)

According to the Times’ variety of calculus, this action will have remarkably positive consequences.  The consumption of unhealthy, obesity-producing foods will drop by some very large amount – probably 90% if the taxes are high enough – and American obesity will nearly disappear. Diabetes will go the way of tuberculosis and leprosy, all the other medical disorders made worse by obesity will greatly diminish, and we will save trillions of dollars in healthcare expenditures.

What would actually happen, of course, is quite different.

If all sugary foods and fatty foods and processed foods were heavily taxed, the demand on the untaxed foods (the fruits, vegetables and fish) would skyrocket, and prices would go through the roof. Only the very wealthy could get all the healthy food they wanted. The merely wealthy would get some of the healthy food, and would supplement their diets with the unhealthy stuff, grudgingly paying the excessive taxes to do so. DrRich does not know what the poor would do for food, but he bets they would be pissed.

A lot of other unpleasant things would happen as well. The companies that process foods and soft drinks – and most American restaurants – would suffer badly, and would probably go out of business. Robust black markets would establish themselves, trafficking in inexpensive, calorie-dense (and possibly even tasty) foodstuffs, which would now be produced in Mexico, Canada and China instead of in the US. Junk food cartels would murder each other along our borders. Americans would find themselves envying, rather than pitying, that occasional old fart who is discovered dining on a can of Fancy Feast Cat Food.

And furthermore, Americans will learn something about one’s ideal body weight that we don’t hear too much about today, because it does not fit into the “overweight is bad” narrative. Namely, while severe obesity is very bad for your health, being a little overweight is probably not so bad. Statistically speaking, it is more threatening to one’s longevity to be too thin than to be a little overweight.

DrRich does not have the solution to the obesity problem we have in America. If there is a solution, DrRich thinks it is likely to be some combination of science (since there is a large genetic component to true obesity), encouraging a sense of personal responsibility for living one’s own life, and yes, even public policy. But he finds the kind of linear thinking displayed in today’s Times – relying on assumption piled upon assumption, ignoring the obvious human and economic reactions that will knock those assumptions off their straight-line path – to be silly. And if they actually encourage public policy experts to behave in such a manner, they can be dangerous.

Encourage Suicide, Stifle Medical Progress

DrRich | July 17th, 2011 - 2:23 pm

Podcast:

David Brooks last week penned a remarkable opinion piece for the New York Times suggesting that the root problem underlying our unsupportable national debt is the unreasonable desire of Americans to be cured of their illnesses. DrRich finds this an interesting formulation of the problem.

As DrRich has said many times, it is indeed true that our rising cost of healthcare is the chief driver of our national debt, and therefore is the chief threat to our long-term survival as a civil society. But while DrRich and others have proposed solutions to this problem that would rely on new systems for paying for America’s healthcare, Mr. Brooks’ problem statement admits no such solution.

For Mr. Brooks, since the root problem is the unreasonable attitude Americans have toward disease and death, the only solution must be for Americans to change their attitude*.

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*The need to change the attitude of the masses – or to say it another way, the need to change human nature – always turns out to be the fatal flaw of the Progressive program.
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Brooks opens his piece with a paen to Dudley Clendinen, a former colleague at the Times, who is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Clendinen’s recent article in the Times Sunday Review revealed his plan to commit suicide before allowing himself to become completely incapacitated by his illness.

DrRich suspects that many of his readers will, as he does himself, understand, respect, and even support Mr. Clendinen’s plan. But understanding, respecting and supporting his plan to commit suicide is different from saying that Mr. Clendinen’s decision is so reasonable that, really, everyone ought to reach the same conclusion, and anyone in his position who does not is somehow being unreasonable (or worse).

But this is exactly what Mr. Brooks is saying. Specifically, Brooks says, “But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families are willing to do what Clendinen is doing — confront death and their obligations to the living.” In other words, Clendinen is doing no more than his rightful duty. He does not deserve praise as much as people who choose otherwise deserve criticism.

This is not Mr. Brooks’ only message. His other message is that medical progress is an illusion. He points out that the War on Cancer, announced in the early 1970s, has still not been won, and that despite all the research we have done, heart disease has still not been cured. He quotes some famous medical ethicists (DrRich’s favorite people, save the public health experts) as saying “our main achievements today consist of devising ways to marginally extend the lives of the very sick.”

DrRich will not argue that all of our investment in medical progress has been stunningly successful. He will simply remind his readers that neither has it all been futile. Hundreds of thousands of cancer survivors are leading happy lives today who would have been dead from their disease in 1970. And while the mortality rate from heart attacks approached 20% in 1970, today (in the U.S at least) it is around 2%. So while we haven’t cured all cancer or all heart disease, our efforts have still improved and extended the lives of a lot of people.

Mr.Brooks, who passes at the New York Times as a “conservative,” is pretty cozy with the Obama administration. And while DrRich would not suggest that his message to us is directly coordinated with the Obama folks, it is likely that it expresses certain beliefs which the administration, at the least, would not find objectionable.

DrRich has long attempted to convince his readers that the Progressive program is very sympathetic to efforts to stifle medical progress, and to hasten the end of life.

Mr. Brooks’ latest effort is a sign that Progressives may be finally beginning to come out of the closet, to stop beating around the bush – and to openly state their actual healthcare agenda. If so, DrRich praises his honesty and forthrightness.

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As an aid to Mr. Brooks and his friends, DrRich has produced a very helpful and very detailed roadmap for how to sell assisted suicide to the masses.

Primary Care Is Dead, Part 2: Moving On

DrRich | July 11th, 2011 - 6:53 am

Podcast:

In his last post, DrRich pointed out to his PCP friends that their chosen profession of primary care medicine is dead and buried – with an official obituary and everything – and that it is pointless for PCPs to waste their time worrying about “secret shoppers” and other petty annoyances.

It is time for you PCPs to abandon “primary care” altogether. It is time to move on.

Walking away from primary care should not be a loss, because actually, primary care has long since abandoned you. Whatever “primary care” may have once been, it has now been reduced to strict adherence to “guidelines,” 7.5 minutes per patient “encounter,” placing chits on various “Pay for Performance” checklists, striving to induce high-and-mighty healthcare bureaucrats (who wouldn’t know a sphygmomanometer from a sphincter) to smile benignly at your humble compliance with their dictates, and most recently, competing for business with nurses.

This is not really primary care medicine. It’s not medicine at all. It’s something else. But whatever it is, it’s what has now been designated by law as “primary care,” and anyone the government unleashes to do it (whether doctors, nurses, or high-school graduates with a checklist of questions) now are all officially Primary Care Practitioners.

What generalist physicians (heretofore known as primary care physicians) need to realize is that “primary care” has been dumbed-down to the point where abandoning it is no loss; indeed, it ought to be liberating to walk away from it.

The beauty is that to survive and flourish, you don’t really need to change your medical ideals or even your medical behavior (unless, of course, you have bought in to the strict adherence to guidelines, checklists, &c.) You simply need to practice medicine exactly as you were trained to practice it – taking all the time needed for careful, thoughtful attention to detail; seeking out the meaningful nuances in your patients’ medical conditions; personalizing both diagnostic and therapeutic recommendations not only for your patient’s medical problems, but also for their psychosocial and economic circumstances; relishing the challenge of making the difficult diagnoses, and managing the complex medical disorders that so often break from the designated norm; and treating guidelines as just that, as often-helpful guideposts, rather than mandates; and most important of all, embracing the classic doctor-patient relationship in all its particulars, and having the latitude to become a true advocate for your individual patients within a hostile healthcare system. In short, you can go back to being a real doctor, and not a cipher in some bureaucrat’s database.

There are only two things you need to do to move in this direction.

First, abandon the “primary care” label. Remember, primary care is now the standards-based, checklist-driven, one-size-fits all, “high-quality” system of practice imposed by government bureaucrats, a practice which is now open to both doctors and nurses (and, in the future, most likely to others).  That’s not what you do. So find a new name for yourself.

The choice of nomenclature is yours, of course, but DrRich humbly suggests “Advanced Care Medicine.”

What you do is not primary care; it’s far more advanced than that, and nobody could do it without the sort of extensive training you have. “Advanced Care Medicine” captures that notion. This name also opens the possibility of referrals from the new-style, government-sanctioned “PCPs,” some of whom undoubtedly will come to recognize that at least 20% of their patients will present as clinical puzzles that do not fit very well with any of the standard medical diagnoses with which they are familiar, and another 20% will not respond to the recommended therapy as the guidelines say they must. These patients obviously will need advanced management, management beyond what a modern primary care practitioner is able (or allowed) to offer. Why not refer them to an ACM physician?

Second, you need to establish practices whereby you are paid directly by your patients. You need to do this because it is the only method available for avoiding the bureaucratic nightmare that wrecked your former profession of primary care in the first place. Payment models can be established that will allow most patients – anyone, say, who can afford a cell phone contract or cable TV – to participate.  (Making your services readily available will blunt the obligatory attacks of “elitist!” which will be aimed your way in the attempt to shame you back into the primary care gulag). There really ought to be nothing particularly revolutionary about this kind of practice, since it was the norm throughout most of the history of medicine until 40 years ago. It is likely that many patients who today would never consider paying any doctor out of pocket will eventually change their minds, once it becomes apparent to them the depths to which primary care medicine has fallen in the United States, and that as a result their lives are on the line.

In any case, when you are paid by your patients, you answer to your patients (not some hostile bureaucrat), and the quality of the care you deliver is measured by your patients (and not some other hostile bureaucrat).  There are no externally imposed time-limits to your office visits, no checklists you must complete, no bizarre documentation rules you must follow for reimbursement, no guidelines you must obey even if it makes no sense for your patient. Those things are for the modern, government-approved “PCPs” to concern themselves with, poor souls, and you do not dwell among these unfortunates anymore.

And happy it is that primary care medicine is killed off now, at this time – because time is of the essence. DrRich has already pointed out that an essential feature of our new Progressive healthcare system will be to make it illegal (in the name of fairness) for individuals to spend their own money on their own healthcare. For Advanced Care Medicine (or whatever you may choose to call it) to become a viable path, you’ve got to begin immediately to make it a fait accompli – to establish it as something patients value, and which they fully expect as a personal healthcare option, and furthermore, as an indispensable referral resource for those sad souls – physicians, nurses and others – who retain the label “PCP,” and who will be powerless (if not clueless) when it comes to providing complex medical care to patients who come in with a difficult diagnosis, or more than one diagnosis, or who otherwise display guideline-unfriendliness.

So at the end of the day, the fact that Obamacare has formally brought primary care medicine to a merciful end may turn out to be a positive thing.

And by all means, don’t sweat President Obama’s “secret shoppers,” or any other cutesy ploys which our policy experts may dream up in the future to amuse themselves, and to distract you from the real issue (which is the demise of your profession). When those phony secret shoppers call for a phony appointment, simply tell them you have openings for any patient, at very reasonable rates and at at a time of their choosing, and that they can see a real doctor who will treat them with dignity, care, expertise, and respect. Or on the other hand, you can remind them, they can take their chances with one of those embittered or indifferent, underutilized or under-trained, oppressively over-regulated or complaisantly submissive, new-style PCPs specified under Obamacare.

Even Obama’s secret shoppers would have to think twice about a choice like that.

Primary Care Is Dead, Part 1: The Obituary

DrRich | July 5th, 2011 - 11:05 am

Podcast:

The recent announcement that President Obama would dispatch “secret shoppers” – agents of the government posing as patients with either private insurance or Medicare/Medicaid, who would call primary care physicians’ offices to document how long it takes to receive appointments – had many PCPs quite upset.

PCPs were upset despite the fact that the administration assured them that the President’s spies were only aiming to help. In particular, the secret shoppers were going to document that America has a PCP shortage, presumably so that government programs of some sort could be devised to fix that shortage. (They would also document, bye the bye, that patients with government insurance have a more difficult time getting appointments with PCPs.) Apparently, however, the outcry from insulted PCPs was so great that the administration quickly decided to scrap the secret shoppers program – for now, at least.

It is obvious that what the administration claimed they wanted to measure is already well known. Yes, there is indeed a PCP shortage. And yes, PCPs (being, on average, intelligent persons) are relatively slow to schedule patients whose insurance is known to result in a financial loss – if they schedule them at all.

Therefore, equally obviously, there must be some other motive for the administration to have devised this secret shopper program.

The real motive, DrRich submits, was to establish with actual data that: a) we have a two-tiered healthcare system, in which patients on government insurance plans sometimes have more difficulty obtaining medical care, and b) doctors (even the universally-beloved PCPs) are greedy and untrustworthy. Such results, with expert handling, would have served to move some American citizens a little closer to accepting a single-payer healthcare system. It would also serve to convince a few people that, seeing as how physicians behave so badly, perhaps it is not really necessary to have a doctor as your PCP.

All in all, the secret shopper program would have been a few hundred thousand dollars well-spent.

Still, DrRich can only shake his head in wonderment that his PCP friends expressed such great dismay over such a small thing as the secret shopper program. It is as if, after the Titanic struck the iceberg, a delegation of passengers was dispatched to berate the Captain because the turn-down service seemed slow that night.

How is it possible for PCPs to be so indignant about such a trivial thing as secret shoppers, when the very means of their livelihood – their chosen career – is at an end? For it is plain to anyone who cares to look that primary care medicine as we know it is dead. It lingered for years in a moribund condition, and its obituary was finally published last year in the Obamacare legislation.

Primary care’s cause of death was a culmination of two fatal disorders. Firstly, the healthcare system itself – well before the Obama administration came along – slowly smothered primary care into oblivion.

Consider the reduced condition to which the healthcare system – especially the government payers – eventually drove the primary care doctor: Their pay is determined arbitrarily by Acts of Congress, like workers in the old Soviet collectives. They are directed to “practice medicine” strictly according to directives (quaintly called “guidelines”), handed down from on high by panels of sanctioned experts, and accordingly PCPs are enjoined from taking into account their professional experience, or their specific knowledge of their individual patients. They are limited to 7.5 minutes per patient “encounter,” and the content of this brief encounter is determined by sundry Pay for Performance checklists, so as to strictly limit any interactions with their patients that do not meet the approved agenda. Their every move must be carefully documented according to incomprehensible rules, on innumerable forms and documents, that confound patient care but that greatly further the convenience of the stone-witted bureaucrats who are employed specifically to second-guess every clinical decision and every action they take. Worst of all PCPs have been charged with being the primary mediators of covert, bedside healthcare rationing, and to this end have been pressed to nullify the classic doctor-patient relationship by the healthcare bureaucracy that determines their professional viability, by the United States Supreme Court*, and by the bankrupt, new-age ethical precepts of their own profession.

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*Pegram et al. vs Herdrich(98-1940), 530 US211 (2000)
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By such insults, even before Obamacare became the law of the land, primary care medicine had been reduced to one of the most frustrating, enervating and demeaning endeavors a physician could imagine.  Many if not most practicing PCPs are looking to either retire early or change careers, and medical students – even the most idealistic ones – are avoiding primary care in droves, especially if their training exposes them to the palpable despair radiated by actual primary care physicians.

But the second fatal disorder has nothing to do with policy or politics. Even if doctors had perfect control of the healthcare system and the political realities, primary care medicine (as we know it) would still be in trouble. This is because of an axiomatic truth revealed by the annals of human progress, to wit: As knowledge increases and technology improves, activities that used to require the services of highly-trained experts become available to non-experts who have much less training. A lot of what PCPs have traditionally done – check-ups of well patients, screening for occult disease, controlling cholesterol, advising on diet, weight loss and exercise, managing routine hypertension and diabetes – really can be reduced to a series of guidelines and checklists, which can be adequately followed by individuals with much less training than these doctors receive.

When any area of expertise evolves to this level, it is inevitable (in a free economy) that lesser-trained individuals will inherit it. This event greatly increases productivity, makes the services in question more readily available to many people at lower cost, and (ideally) frees up the experts to take on more challenging endeavors. While this kind of transition is nearly inevitable, it is often painful and disruptive. The pain and disruption are being experienced by PCPs today.

DrRich agrees with fellow blogger Wade Kartchner that primary care medicine has advanced to the point where it really would make sense to turn over many of the routine, mundane, and reducible-to-checklist tasks that PCPs typically perform to non-physicians. PCPs who are fighting against this inevitability are wasting their time and energy. They are fighting both history and the laws of economics, so in the end it is a losing battle. It is time for PCPs to move on.

It is of course immaterial whether you agree with DrRich on this point. It is immaterial because this is how the Central Authority sees it.

Having painstakingly reduced you PCPs to tools of the state – whose chief job is to follow the guidelines and place chits on the checklists, &c. – it is only natural for the Central Authority to eventually notice that you really don’t need all that training to do the kind of job they have invented for you. Nurses – who can be “trained up” much more rapidly than you, who will work for much less money than you, and who (they think) will be much less recalcitrant about following handed-down directives than you – will fill the gap. And you, doctor, can go pound salt.

So it was really only a formality for the Obamacare legislation to make the death of primary care official. And the new law, accordingly, did so by stating explicitly that PCPs and nurse practitioners are now equivalent, one and the same. They are both PCPs under the eyes of the law. The actual language of the obituary is as follows:

The term ‘primary care practitioner’ means an individual who —

(I) is a physician (as described in section 1861(r)(1)) who has a primary specialty designation of family medicine, internal medicine, geriatric medicine, or pediatric medicine; or

(II) is a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, or physician assistant (as those terms are defined in 9 section 1861(aa)(5))

What this means is that today there are two pathways to becoming a PCP. You can spend four years in college, four years in medical school and three years in a clinical residency – or you can go to nursing school and do another year or two of clinical training. Given this established fact, one could hardly fault patients for questioning the common sense (if not the intelligence) of a healthcare worker who, at this point in the history of medicine, would choose the former pathway.

And so the issue is decided. PCPs: by virtue of your specialty you have been formally (and legally) reduced to the status of a nurse-equivalent. Your specialty, as you have known it, is dead.

Among other things, this means that the secret shopper gambit – when it is finally implemented – is just not worth worrying about. It’s only a way to convince a few more Americans that their PCPs are essentially worthless, and that they’d be just as well off having a nurse practitioner do the job. So don’t sweat the secret shoppers. Forget them.

Instead, you need to decide what you’re going to do about the demise of your chosen career.

In his next post, DrRich offers you some friendly advice in this regard.