Very few of you will have read the final chapter of my new book (judging from the early sales figures, at least), and so most of you will not have read the John Galt speech I provided there for direct-pay practitioners.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of direct-pay practitioners, of doctors who “drop out” of the system to establish medical practices in which they are paid directly by their patients. This kind of arrangement is the only way today for physicians and patients to enjoy the classic doctor-patient relationship; you know, the relationship where the patient agrees to confide completely in the physician, and the physician agrees to work solely for the benefit of the patient.
In the modern healthcare system, especially under Obamacare, this classic form of the doctor-patient relationship is not only frowned upon, but is considered unethical. It is unethical because doctors have formally adopted a “new ethics” which obligates them to work for “social justice,” which is a pleasant-sounding euphemism for covert bedside healthcare rationing. The direct-pay model allows physicians to avoid this odious new responsibility.
The entire healthcare system today is disposed to hate the direct-pay model. The reason typically given is that this model of practice will establish unfair “two-tiered” healthcare, the new, undesired tier, of course, being the one in which patients would enjoy the benefits of a professional advocate who is looking out for their individual needs. Accused felons can still enjoy such a personal advocate as they face a complex legal system, but not so for patients facing a hostile and parsimonious healthcare system. (If patients do not like this, well, they should have taken better care of themselves.)
Direct-pay physicians are being castigated all across the land for being greedy, elitist, selfish, lazy and unethical. And if they cannot be shamed into returning to the medical gulag, they will soon be prosecuted into doing so.
When the attacks become serious, direct-pay doctors need to be prepared with a clear and compelling answer; an answer that does not offer any apologies; an answer that does not rely on the “goodies” that go along with having a direct-pay physician (things like same-day appointments, or access to the doctor’s cell phone number and e-mail address); an answer that instead boldly expresses in plain language that what they are doing does not destroy but salvages medical ethics, and indeed, it is the ONLY way that remains for doctors to practice their profession ethically.
What direct-pay doctors need is a John Galt speech.
And since I fear most of you have missed it, I reproduce my proposed John Galt speech here.
(I have liberally borrowed parts of the first three paragraphs from the actual John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged. The blame for the rest of it falls solely upon your faithful author.)
A John Galt Speech For Direct-Pay Physicians
“You demand to know what has happened to us, the physicians you thought you controlled. You have cried that our sins are destroying the world and you have cursed us for our unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded. Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifice, you have demanded more sacrifices at every turn. You have sacrificed all those evils which you held as the cause of your plight. You have sacrificed justice to mercy. You have sacrificed independence to unity. You have sacrificed wealth to need. You have sacrificed self-esteem to self-denial. You have sacrificed happiness to duty.
“While you were dragging us to your sacrificial altars, we physicians who value justice, independence, reason, and self-esteem – we finally came to see the nature of the game you were playing, which we had previously been too innocently generous to grasp. And we have chosen to play no longer.
“All the physicians who have vanished from your system, the doctors you hated, yet dreaded to lose, we are gone from you. Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider your need a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are making our own way, apart from you.
“In your cynical attempt to control the healthcare system, you have coerced us – with your threats to our livelihood, threats of massive fines, threats of jail – to abandon our sacred obligation to our patients. Society must come first, you say. The needs of the collective are paramount, you insist. We must do what the experts tell us to do, you demand. And in the process you have destroyed the doctor-patient relationship which is the backbone of our profession. You have reduced physicians to ciphers, to puppets. And you have reduced our patients – the living, loving, hoping, striving people who come to us, who place their trust in us and their lives in our hands – to interchangeable members of a vast herd. You have demanded that we guard society’s interests, and abandon our sick to their own devices in your cruel and parsimonious healthcare system.
“Your process is now firmly established. Your methods have been legislated by Congress, embodied in volumes of rules, regulations and “guidelines” (strictly and ruthlessly enforced), upheld by the courts, and finally (and most tellingly) sanctioned as being entirely “ethical” by your allies, the leadership of our own professional organizations. You have made the healthcare system untenable for doctors who value true medical ethics.
“You have placed us into a position where we must either resign ourselves to an unethical, demeaning, health-destroying style of practice, or get out. We have gotten out.
“We have gotten out. We have left your Program. We refuse to sacrifice ourselves for you any longer. We will not sacrifice our livelihoods, our morals, our independence, our minds, or our patients for your bastardized idea of virtue.
“We will practice medicine in the only manner that still permits us to behave ethically toward our patients, in the only way that we can honor the true doctor-patient relationship, in the only way we can legitimately regain the title of professional. We have chosen to be paid directly by the people to whom we provide our services, by the people to whom we dedicate ourselves as professionals. We have chosen to cut you out.
“To argue that direct-pay practices are unethical – to argue that any innovation that would somehow restore both our professional integrity and the patient’s rightful advocate is unethical – is completely upside down. This argument only reveals your own inner corruption. We are taking the only pathway that remains to us to restore the true foundation of medical ethics, to restore our profession – to always place the patient first.
“To argue that direct-pay practices threaten the general welfare completely ignores reality. We are doing the only thing we can do to begin restoring protections that people are supposed to have when they are sick and facing a healthcare system that is utterly bent on withholding their care whenever it can be gotten away with.
“To argue that direct-pay medicine will create a two-tiered healthcare system is absurd on its face. It provides a mechanism by which at least some of your intended victims can escape the deadly obstacles you have laid before them. Saying that it amounts to a two-tiered healthcare system is as absurd as arguing that slaveholders were wrong to free their slaves before Emancipation, because doing so would create an elite subpopulation of former slaves; that until all slaves are freed, no slaves should be freed. But when a few slaves were freed and walked the earth as free men, that action was not only ethical, but it also showed others what was possible. Over time, it created a widespread expectation for freedom that eventually could no longer be ignored, and that, at huge cost, was finally fulfilled.
“You wouldn’t understand this – you who already know everything, you whose experts already have all the answers – but any innovation that can potentially spare patients from some of the harm you have in store for them will necessarily be applicable to only a few patients at first. That is how disruptive processes work. In your proposed perfect system, of course, disruptive processes are anathema – because they disrupt. But in the real world disruptive processes are creative processes, processes of growth, processes of rejuvenation, processes that create opportunity. This is why you always try to suffocate disruptive processes, with your cries of “unfair!”
“Disruptive processes always begin as niche products or services, attractive only to a few high-end users; too expensive or too marginal for the vast majority; ignored, ridiculed or castigated by current providers. But if at their core they are offering something fundamentally useful, they will slowly demonstrate their worth – and eventually all the potential users will see the light, and demand for the product will become explosive. At this stage the means are invariably found to make the new product affordable and available to meet the demand, while preserving the core benefits. And when that happens, the traditional providers (who never saw it coming) are suddenly out of business.
” We are a disruptive process, and the process we are disrupting is yours.
“We are not playing your game any longer. We will no longer be victims; we will no longer subject ourselves to your attempts to make us guilty. We will no longer walk, heads bent down, to your altar of sacrifice.
“You no longer have any hold on us. We have done our time. We are getting out. If we decided to leave medicine and open a road-side fruit stand, or become lumberjacks, or just spend our time puttering around in the basement, you would have no objection to that. So by what right do you object if we hang out our shingles, and see a few patients who voluntarily come to us, using their own resources to do so? You can have no rightful objection to such a thing. So be quiet about it, or admit to your own corruption.”
DrRich explains it all in Open Wide and Say Moo! The Good Citizen’s Guide to Right Thoughts and Right Actions Under Obamacare
Now available in the audiobook version!
A recent article in the New York Times discusses the growing controversy regarding whether nurses who have earned a doctorate degree in nursing practice ought to be addressed, by patients or others, as “doctor.” The article touches upon several salient aspects of this controversy, but unfortunately does not resolve any of them.
According to the article, most doctors think nurses – even ones with advanced degrees – should not be awarded this honorific. Only physicians ought to be referred to, in any clinical setting, as “doctor.”
The reason, of course, is entirely altruistic. If the nurses are called “doctor,” it will confuse patients; they won’t know what’s going on, or who’s in charge. This kind of reasoning is entirely consistent with physicians’ well-known and unremitting efforts to make sure every patient understands exactly what is going on, at all times. Clearly, nurses calling themselves “doctor” will undermine such noble efforts.
There are other issues to consider. The Times portrays Dr. Roland Goertz, chairman of the board of the American Academy of Family Physicians (and presumably a doctor of medicine, but this is unspecified), as fretting that, should nurses be allowed to wrest control of the title “doctor” from the real doctors, the real doctors would experience a “loss of control of the profession itself.”
Dr. Kathleen Potempa, president of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (and presumably a doctor of the nursing kind, but also unspecified) counters that nurses are getting doctorates not to take over the healthcare system or screw with doctors’ heads, but merely to boost their education and stay current. There is, she says, a lot for nurses to learn about these days.
But despite such soothing words from one of nursing’s luminaries, the Times notes that doctors remain alarmed. Nurses are really getting their doctorate degrees, physicians happen to know, to boost their credentials to practice independently – making their own diagnoses, initiating their own treatment plans, writing their own prescriptions, &c. Several states already allow them to do so. Louis J. Goodman, chief executive of the Texas Medical Association, is not fooled: “This degree is just another step toward independent practice.”
But the Times article ends with another demurral from Dr. Potempa: “Nurses are very proud of the fact that they’re nurses, and if nurses had wanted to be doctors, they would have gone to medical school.” (As if, DrRich can hear a few of his colleagues muttering, they could have gotten in.)
So, as DrRich says, the New York Times succeeds in rubbing some of the sore spots created by this controversy, but does not resolve anything. In fact, the article merely dances around the real issue, and leaves it entirely untouched.
You are therefore fortunate, Dear Reader, that you have DrRich to explain the whole matter to you. In fact, here are the six things you really need to know about the doctor-nurses controversy:
1) Nurses who decorate themselves with a doctorate degree in nursing practice have every right to refer to themselves as “doctor,” just as any other doctor in any other field has that right. DrRich was reminded of this fact several years ago, when he was severely admonished at a parent-teacher conference by his child’s history teacher for failing to address her as “doctor.” (This was after DrRich had ascertained that this person could probably not name a single event in American history that had occurred prior to 1860. But then, her degree was in “education,” rather than in the subject matter she taught.) And consider this: there are “doctors” wandering our streets whose degrees are in fields of endeavor whose names end in the word “Studies.” If these souls deserve to be called “doctor,” then nurses – who actually know a lot of very useful things – certainly do.
2) It is not the nurses’ fault that the doctors of old, when they finally became tired of being referred to as “barbers” or “chirurgeons,” and wanting a more distinctive name for themselves, commandeered the generic and widely-used title of “doctor.” No doubt they were very impressed with themselves at the time for having gained an education beyond that necessary to create a decent tonsure, but still. It is as if football players had decided to usurp the term “athlete” as referring only to themselves, and then complained when race car drivers began calling themselves the same thing. (The football players would have a point, of course, but on the whole their behavior would be unreasonable, not to mention unseemly.)
3) It seems just a tad disengenuous for physicians to complain because nurses calling themselves doctors might confuse some patients. Doctors themselves have not been particularly assiduous about disabusing their patients of various confusions. Doctors have yet to explain to their patients, for instance, that according to recently adopted precepts of medical ethics, they are obligated to covertly ration their medical care at the bedside. As a result, patients still think their doctors’ primary obligation is to them. This sort of “confusion” seems far worse, to DrRich, than a little confusion about who is a doctor and who is not. (Besides which, evidence suggests that many patients will always labor under the notion that all female health professionals are nurses, and all males are doctors – and so their confusion about who is who is pretty standard stuff.)
4) DrRich knows that you family practitioners out there have bigger things to worry about, but what the heck is the story with Dr. Roland Goertz*, chairman of the board of your professional society? Can it be he’s actually worried that nurses calling themselves doctors will lead to doctors losing control of their profession? What control is that? Gentlemen and ladies, you have elected a chairman who thinks that you family practitioners still have control of your profession! What are you people thinking?
*DrRich notes that Dr. Goertz is aptly named. The original, according to the Song of Roland, also sacrificed himself fighting a futile rear-guard action against vastly superior forces.
5) Dr. Potempa, president of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, seems like a very reasonable person, and perhaps doctors (the physician kind) might be able to work with her. But DrRich has noticed that there are several different professional societies representing nurses, and some are less mild-mannered and less “reasonable” than others. The nursing organization which perhaps most directly represents those kinds of nurses whom doctors are most concerned about (i.e., nurses who become “doctors” and then want to be addressed that way) is the American College of Nursing Practitioners. The ACNP is much less demure than is Dr. Potempa’s organization about its long-term goals, which it has publicly expressed in a Strategic Plan published in 2005. Anyone examining this plan will note right away that it has been published in ALL CAPS, which, by tradition, indicates a shouting, in-your-face, screw-you sort of an attitude. In this manifesto, the ACNP states (among other things) that “INTERDISCIPLINARY NON-HIERARCHICAL TEAM CARE IS THE HIGHEST QUALITY OF CARE” (i.e., we’re not taking any guff, or orders, from you know-it-all doctors, rather we will practice as fully independent agents); and declares that their goals will not be met until nurses are “PRACTICING WITHOUT RESTRICTION IN EVERY SECTOR OF HEALTHCARE DELIVERY” (i.e., there are no limits to our scope of activity). Overall, this document is breathtaking in its breadth, straightforwardness, and attitude. This Strategic Plan, DrRich points out to his physician friends, reveals what the nurse practitioners are really up to.
And it’s just what you thought.
6) There is an overriding fact that renders all of the above entirely moot. It does not actually matter what doctor-nurses call themselves, or even that there is such a thing as doctor-nurses. It does not matter that the ACNP appears to be a predatory organization. It does not matter that Dr. Goertz may suffer from an acute lack of clues, or that Dr. Potempa seems like a nice lady.
None of this matters, Dear Reader, because Obamacare, the law of the land, has promulgated a new definition of Primary Care Practitioner. By law, today, physicians who practice primary care medicine, and doctor-nurses, and nurse practitioners (not to mention various other forms of non-physician medical personnel), are all PCPs. They are all equally qualified under the law.
It is a done deal. Only the details need to be worked out.
It is not convenient to acknowledge this fact. Primary care physicians and their professional organizations would rather not think about the implications. It means that the American Academy of Family Physicians is fundamentally an obsolete organization, as are its officials, such as Dr. Goertz. It means nearly the same for the American College of Physicians. Neither of these organizations is about to admit that. Furthermore, if this fact were to be acknowledged by the academic programs which are training our primary care physicians, they would become obligated to inform their applicants that the 8-10 years of medical training they are signing up for will place them in the same position, legally speaking, as a nurse practitioner (or, if they want to cushion the blow a little, as a doctor-nurse). This is truly an inconvenient truth. So it is being publicly ignored.
And so primary care doctors, and their professional organizations, go on pretending that the big issue facing primary care doctors is what these new-style PCPs will call themselves. And they are happy to fulminate about that issue to reporters from the New York Times. It seems safer than facing the truth.
But the truth is still the truth, and only the primary care doctors who face up to it will stand a chance of bucking the system, and maintaining their professional standards.
DrRich has heard several primary care physicians argue that their training is just so much better than the training of a doctor-nurse that it’s absurd to suppose those lesser professionals can offer equivalent care. This would certainly be true if primary care doctors actually did the things their training prepared them for. But if they continue following the path the system has laid out for them in recent years – avoiding the management of hospitalized, acutely ill patients altogether; seeing the outpatients who constitute their entire practice at a rate of one per 7.5 minutes; spending that 7.5 minutes making chits on Pay for Performance checklists from On High; sending anyone who actually seems a little sick to the emergency room or to a specialist – it is actually difficult to see what the big drop-off will be if doctor-nurses are doing the job.
When DrRich’s 15-year-old automobile displays some horrible new symptom, he wants a well-trained and experienced mechanic to diagnose the problem and fix it the right way. But if he’s only taking it to one of those 10-minute places for an oil change and a filter, it’s fine with him if the technician just learned the job last Tuesday from Stu. Primary care doctors have allowed themselves to be converted into Jiffy Lube. The training advantage they have over doctor-nurses matters less and less.
The Central Authority is assembling panels of experts to determine which medical decisions are to be made under which circumstances for which patients, and all it asks of doctors is to follow their instructions to the letter. Further, the Central Authority has determined that doctor-nurses will be very, very good at following those instructions – better than physicians, almost without a doubt. Indeed, the nurses’ lesser training – enough to allow them to recognize common conditions, and also enough to teach them that medicine is extraordinarily complex and there’s a lot they don’t understand and never will – is aimed at rendering them satisfied to comply with the directives handed down by panels of experts, and to be very thankful they can do so. Their reduced training is a decided advantage to the Central Authority.
To the Central Authority, the role of an ideal “practitioner” will be much better filled by a nurse, whose training is brief, to the point, focuses on following treatment plans, and is not burdened by centuries of professional pride and embarrassing oaths to dead Greek gods.
Primary care doctors who still value their professional pride, oaths, &c. had better light out for the territories while they still can, and quit worrying about the doctor-nurses (who soon enough will have big problems of their own).
Doctors need to face what is happening to their profession, and avoid getting distracted by battles over nomenclature. If they want to maintain their professional integrity, they will need to clearly distinguish themselves from the checklist checkers and the guideline followers, and demonstrate how the individual expertise and the personalized care they offer will be a big advantage to many patients.
If primary care doctors believe they really do add value to patient care over and above whatever nurses can provide, then they had better learn to articulate exactly what that value is. And once having articulated it, they will need to organize themselves to deliver and market that value, at a reasonable price, to the people they expect to pay for it.
And the “people they expect to pay for it” had better be their patients – because the Central Authority and other third party payers have made crystal clear precisely what they want, expect, and will tolerate from a PCP. What that is, of course, is complete compliance with central directives, and an end to the annoying expectations physicians have traditionally expressed for individual decision-making.
And as for those within the Central Authority, DrRich humbly suggests they carefully read the ANCP manifesto, and ask themselves whether the object of their affection, when finally won, is going to prove quite the demure, compliant little partner they’ve been pining for all this time.
DrRich’s recent posts on the death of primary care medicine elicited several responses from readers, not all of them positive.
Most of the complaints DrRich harvested from these posts had to do with his suggestion that the physicians formerly known as PCPs ought to drop out of the dysfunctional healthcare system altogether (the system that has, purposefully and with malice aforethought, wrecked their chosen careers), then strike out instead on their own, and establish private practices in which they are paid directly by their patients.
This suggestion creates, among many in our society (and apparently, among many of DrRich’s readers), a viscerally negative reaction. Many people believe that DrRich is exhorting doctors to embrace their inner greed, and abandon the great lot of patients in order to satisfy their own selfish desires and foolish professional pride.
A reasonably typical comment came from one Tracy, who avers, “Only the rich will be treated. I don’t think we want to do that do we?”
Now, if DrRich were a Progressive, he would take advantage of the fact that Tracy (who thoughtfully provided his website address) is a health insurance agent, and would dispense with him using a scathing ad hominem attack, something like: Look who’s talking about somebody selling a vital healthcare product at such a high price that people can’t afford it!
But DrRich is not a Progressive. So he will ignore the delicious irony in Tracy’s complaint, and address the substance of his comment. To restate Tracy’s objection (and, in fact, all of the objections that have been made to physicians dropping out of the system and establishing direct-pay practices): For doctors to demand that patients pay them directly is elitist and unethical; only the rich will be able to afford this kind of care; a two-tiered healthcare system will develop, and public health will suffer.
DrRich will answer this objection in two ways. First, he will make a philosophical argument as to why direct-pay practices are the right thing to do. Then he will give a real-world example that demonstrates how a direct-pay practice is, in fact, good for patients and for society.
The fundamental argument that supports the rightness of direct-pay practices has been made numerous times on this blog. In summary: In the attempt to control healthcare costs, the Feds and the insurance companies have, in uncountable ways, entirely coerced physicians (using and exercising the threats of loss of income, massive fines, and jail) to place the needs of the payers ahead of the needs of their individual patients. In so doing, they have systematically destroyed the doctor-patient relationship, in the process killing medical professionalism, and reducing patients to objects, to cost centers, and abandoning the sick to their own devices as they attempt to navigate an increasingly hostile healthcare system.
This process is now firmly established. It has been legislated by Congress, embodied in volumes and volumes of rules, regulations and “guidelines” (strictly and ruthlessly enforced), upheld by the courts, and finally (and most tellingly) sanctioned as being entirely “ethical” by the physicians’ own professional organizations.
It has become impossible for doctors – especially the PCPs, who have been most directly affected – to fight this reality. If they want to escape, their only options are to become a medical specialist (since outpatient primary care is the main lever on which the Feds are pushing), a deep-sea fisherman – or a direct-pay practitioner.
So primary care doctors must either resign themselves to a system that ruthlessly pushes them toward an unethical, demeaning, public-health-destroying style of practice, or (one way or another) get out.
The only means that will allow them the freedom to practice primary care medicine in a way that is compatible with true medical ethics – which allows them to place the needs of their individual patient above all other considerations – is the direct-pay model. And this means that the only way for a patient to have a primary doctor who treats them the way patients are supposed to be treated is to find a direct-pay doctor.
To argue that direct-pay practices – or any innovation that would somehow restore both the doctor’s professional integrity and the patient’s rightful advocate – is unethical is completely upside down. It is one of the few viable pathways toward restoring the foundational (but currently obsolete and officially repudiated) medical ethic of always placing the patient first.
To argue that direct-pay practices threaten public health completely ignores reality. In fact, this is one of the few viable pathways toward restoring protections that the public is supposed to have when facing a healthcare system that is utterly bent on avoiding spending money on them.
To argue that direct-pay practitioners are creating a two-tiered healthcare system is ridiculous on its face in a society that gives mere lip service (though, to be sure, plenty of it) to the problem of 47 million uninsured.
To argue that direct-pay medicine will create a subpopulation of elites (because it provides a mechanism by which some individual patients can escape the deadly obstacles that have been intentionally laid before them), is as absurd as arguing that George Washington was wrong to free his slaves upon his death (or even that New York State was wrong to abolish slavery at about the same time), because it created a subpopulation of “elite” (i.e., free) African Americans; that until all slaves were freed, no slaves should have been freed. But freeing at least some slaves – and forthrightly stating why it needed to be done (see: Declaration of Independence) – was not only ethical, but also showed what was possible, and over time created an expectation that eventually could no longer be ignored, and that, at huge cost, was finally fulfilled.
It is important to note that any innovation that can potentially spare patients from some of the harm the healthcare system has in store for them will necessarily be applicable to only some patients at first. That’s how disruptive processes work. They begin as niche products or services, attractive only to a few high-end users; too expensive or too marginal for the vast majority; ignored, ridiculed or castigated by current providers. But if at their core they’re offering something fundamentally useful, they will slowly demonstrate their worth – and eventually all the potential users will see the light, and demand for the product will become explosive. When that happens, the means are found to make the new product affordable and available to meet the demand – often by making significant adjustments to the original concept, that nonetheless preserve the core benefits. And when that happens, the traditional providers (who never saw it coming) are suddenly out of business.
It may not be that direct-pay medicine plays the personal computer to the traditional healthcare system’s mainframe. But it is inarguable that what it offers to patients – at its core – is every bit as vital and every bit as indispensable. And if a critical mass of the public can be made to understand what is really being offered here, there will be no holding it back.
Unfortunately we have a limited window of opportunity. The vociferousness of the complaints against direct-pay practices indicates just how threatening these are to the Progressive program. Unless this practice model gains a sufficient toehold, and quickly, it will be made illegal. Because Americans cannot be permitted to spend their own money on their own healthcare.
DrRich will finish by pointing his readers to a real-world model of a direct-pay practice which, he believes, graphically demonstrates the potential benefits of such a model.
Epiphany Health is a direct-pay primary care practice recently begun by Dr. Steven Shell and Dr. Lee Gross in southwest Florida. These doctors took pains to make their services affordable to many of the uninsured (and underinsured). For about what you would pay for a cell phone contract or for cable TV, they will be your doctors.
Doctors, that is, in the original sense – a professional who knows you well, a personal advocate for your health, who is dedicated to placing your interests above all the other competing interests within the healthcare system. Because they are paid by you, it is you they must satisfy in order to have a viable career.
As Dr. Shell told Sun Newspapers, “Our simple, preventative healthcare plan has several advantages that include true price transparency (cost of services ahead of time), high quality care, affordable fees, no copays, no deductibles, no pre-existing condition exclusions and a plan not tied to an employer.”
In addition to price transparency, Epiphany offers major price discounts to their patients. They have negotiated these discounts with pharmacies, physical therapists, imaging centers and laboratories. These discounts are often in the range of 75 – 80% of the cost to non-members.
Now, if this kind of practice is unethical, elitist, or damaging to the public welfare, DrRich just does not see it. In fact, as much a benefit as this kind of practice might be to doctors, it is far more beneficial to the patients lucky enough to have such an option available to them.
You who aren’t so lucky should look at what Epiphany is offering – and demand it for yourselves. If you do, you will have it. There are thousands and thousands of disaffected doctors who would love to practice medicine like this, but they have been cowed to inactivity by the naysayers (and Progressives) with their cries of, “Elitist! Immoral! Unprofessional!”
If these doctors heard from their patients, all the negatives would be forgotten, and they too would have their own epiphany.
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.
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.
*Pegram et al. vs Herdrich(98-1940), 530 US211 (2000)
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.
It should by now be obvious to everyone that, in its great push to take over the American healthcare system, our government will do everything it must to eliminate private practice physicians. This is necessary because Obamacare (or any government-controlled healthcare system) simply cannot operate unless physicians cooperate completely with the Central Authority. Physician behavior absolutely must be controlled, and so doctors who insist on acting independently must either be reeducated or eliminated.
(Don’t get too exercised about DrRich’s language here – he is talking mainly about forcing recalcitrants into early retirement, or career changes. The other kind of “elimination” probably will not become necessary.)
Accordingly, under Obamacare all doctors are to be driven into federally-sanctioned organizations that will operate strictly under government directives. The current parlance for such an organization is the “Accountable Care Organization.”
The ACOs will be run by administrators who (theoretically) will become expert at navigating the morass of rules and regulations now being conjured up under Obamacare. These administrators will interpret the rules and regulations in such a way as to determine The Way It Must Be Done, and then will pass The Way It Must Be Done down to the ACOs’ clinical chiefs (doctors who perhaps used to practice medicine, and maybe still do, a little, but who are now mainly brevet administrators), and the clinical chiefs will finally pass the restrictive rules of engagement down to the doctors who will actually take care of the patients. These doctors, struggling in the trenches, will attempt assiduously to follow those rules without exception, if they would like to keep their jobs as well as avoid a federal fraud rap. The patients, of course, will get whatever they get, but always with official assurances that whatever it is they get, it will be of the highest quality.
As DrRich has pointed out, doctors have very little leverage under this kind of system. Not only do they have the full weight of the federal government pushing them toward their fate as functionaries within ACOs, but they also are being pushed to so assimilate by their own professional organizations. Indeed, thanks to the New Age medical ethics which their professional organizations have promulgated on their behalf, joining collectives such as ACOs is about to become the only ethical way of practicing medicine. (DrRich has shown that this is explicitly so, and that Dr. Berwick agrees.) Doctors who try to make a go of it on their own will not only be practicing extra-legally, but also extra-ethically.
So this is where we are headed.
But we’re not there yet. Far too many physicians are still fundamentally independent-minded; there is still a lot of work to be done to get all the doctors to assimilate into the Borg.
And a major step in this direction will be to eliminate Independent Practice Associations. While the systematic emasculation of IPAs has been going on for years, it is to accelerate rapidly under Obamacare.
IPAs are groups of doctors who own independent medical practices, and who join together to provide bulk services to health insurers at rates of payment that are negotiated collectively. IPAs have a long and respected history for over a half-century. But they have been on the Fed’s hit list since at least the Clinton administration.
The rules under which IPAs must operate in legally negotiating with insurance companies have become complex, illogical, restrictive, arbitrary and ultimately ironic. The full weight of the federal government has been brought to bear against IPAs, apparently to protect the large and powerful health insurance companies, not to mention government health insurers, against “price fixing” by independent doctors – while simultaneously imposing price fixing by those same insurers upon the IPA physicians .
So: not only is it a violation of anti-trust for two random doctors to have a cup of coffee and mention anything to each other about their respective reimbursement rates, it is also illegal for fellow members of an IPA (who are joined together in collective bargaining with insurers) to do so. Indeed, the only kind of negotiation that is apparently allowed (“apparently” because the actual rules are not explicit but implied, and change arbitrarily depending on which administrators are running the Federal Trade Commission) is called the “messenger model” of negotiation. The messenger model is necessitated by the fact that physician members of the IPA are not allowed to communicate with each other about rates, so each IPA must hire a “negotiator” who communicates between individual physician IPA members and the insurer. Furthermore, physicians are not allowed to declare to the insurer what level of reimbursement they will accept (because that would be price fixing), but rather, they can only hear the proposed reimbursement rates from the insurer, and accept or reject them. And in recent years, rejecting the offer by insurers, especially government insurers, has sometimes been determined also to be physician price fixing. This system, for reasons unfathomable to DrRich, is NOT to be considered price fixing on the part of the insurers.
DrRich is not sure he has this entirely right, because it is far more complex than he has allowed, and indeed, the rules are manifestly changeable and unclear, even to professional IPA negotiators.
In fact, it has proven to be very easy (and progressively easier as the years have gone by) for IPAs to get into serious trouble with the FTC, and incur massive fines, for “violations” that are not only fundamentally harmless to any party, but that had been perfectly acceptable behaviors in the recent past. To get the full flavor of the runaway prosecutorial zeal with which the FTC has been acting against IPAs, DrRich strongly recommends that you read this article in the December Reason Magazine by S. M. Oliva. (Many thanks to concerned reader Robert R. for pointing DrRich to this article.)
When the FTC decides to prosecute an IPA for price fixing or other violations-du-jour of the negotiating process, the IPA’s only reasonable course of action is to cave in immediately, sign a consent decree, pay the always-huge and always-arbitrary fine, and then abjectly accept whatever reimbursement rates the insurance company is willing to pay. This resolution to federal charges is unattractive, but at least it gives the IPA some chance of continued survival.
And if you don’t like the terms of the consent decree being imposed upon you, for God’s sake keep your mouth shut about it. When the director of a Colorado IPA recently told the press that her organization had done nothing materially wrong, but had signed the consent decree because they simply could not afford to fight the FTC in court (a truism for any IPA), the FTC sanctioned her as an individual, and barred her from negotiating with insurance companies for two years (effectively ending her career, simply for exercising her right of free speech). Even one of the FTC’s own commissioners, in a dissenting opinion, agreed that this latter action had been a travesty. (It was carried out nonetheless).
And so, operating a medical practice in an IPA has been a pretty dicey thing for several years now.
But Obamacare escalates the risk to a whole new level.
While dealing with the FTC is itself a decidedly nasty proposition, it’s nothing compared to dealing with the Justice Department. And Obamacare brings the DOJ into the fight to eliminate “price fixing” by doctors. That is, a violation of arbitrary and unpredictably changeable rules during IPA negotiations is not just a civil matter anymore, but is potentially (at the discretion of the Feds) a criminal matter.
It looks more and more like the handwriting is on the wall for IPAs, or for any independent, private practice physician who wants to take care of insured patients.
So, once again, DrRich begs his physician friends to consider the alternatives. Think about getting out now, dropping out of the system altogether while you still can, and establishing a direct-pay practice before that, too, is rendered illegal. The window of opportunity is closing.
And, sadly, you may want to re-read DrRich’s helpful suggestions regarding black market healthcare, as that may become the only viable alternative to the Borg – and much sooner than DrRich had previously thought.
Thanks to Ms. Wood of the Occam Practice Management Blog for calling DrRich’s attention to an interesting article appearing recently in the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. This article describes the efforts of a non-profit organization called the Investor Protection Trust to (it appears) medicalize the problem of financial scams involving the elderly.
Specifically, under the auspices of the IPT, government securities regulators will be teaming up with physicians organizations (in particular, the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians), to train PCPs to recognize signs that their elderly patients are victims of financial fraud or exploitation. If such fraud is uncovered or suspected, the physician is to notify Adult Protective Services, an organization which (helpfully) is not subject to certain annoying confidentiality regulations. IPT estimates that screening for financial abuse can be accomplished by adequately-trained PCPs in only three short minutes.
The plan is to have PCPs take special training to help them recognize the signs of financial elder abuse. This training can be accomplished in only two hours, the IPT explains, and will be conducted “under the auspices of medical ethics continuing education.”
Long-time readers will know that DrRich is the President (and sole member) of Future Old Farts of America. (He retains this position despite the fact that his eligibility for FOFA is rapidly expiring, and, some have suggested, has already expired.) As President of FOFA, DrRich naturally deplores financial fraud perpetrated upon the elderly. Indeed, this is one of the chief reasons he opposes Obamacare.
So DrRich applauds this new effort to protect the fiscal wholeness of our beloved elderly. The plan is flawless, as it has something good in it for everyone – except, perhaps, the PCPs.
The IPT itself stands to gain much from this new program, since this organization is funded through fines collected from investment-fraud cases. Having American PCPs embark on a major, sustained, grass-roots effort to troll for such investment fraud (using screening criteria developed by the IPT itself) should greatly increase this organization’s revenue.
The major physicians organizations which represent PCPs – the ACP and the AAFP – also come out ahead by supporting this effort. They reap, of course, all the public relations benefits that always go along with new programs aimed at assisting our esteemed elderly population. But perhaps more importantly, their participation in this program helps them with the small “ethics problem” they have lately created for themselves.
As regular readers will know, the ACP and AAFP are major proponents – and indeed the authors – of the New Age medical ethics that was formally adopted by the medical profession in 2002. This new ethics, as DrRich has patiently explained, obligates physicians to strive to practice medicine for the benefit of the collective. Practically speaking, the “new ethics” creates the ethical foundation by which American physicians will practice medicine according to fiats handed down by government-controlled expert panels. That is, it excuses physicians from their now-obsolete obligation to always do what’s best for the individual patient, in favor of doing what’s best for society as a whole, as determined at a distance by the Central Authority.
All well and good. As DrRich has amply demonstrated, the ACP (at least) is quite satisfied with its new medical ethics, and sees no reason to reconsider. But still, this creates a problem for the ACP when it comes to “medical ethics continuing education.” Thoughtful physicians, when faced with indoctrination programs aimed at getting them to absorb the new medical ethics, often raise uncomfortable questions, questions which (as, again, DrRich has shown) even the chairperson of the ACPs’s ethics committee cannot effectively answer. Clearly then, having formally tossed real medical ethics aside has undoubtedly made these ethics sessions somewhat awkward for the instructors.
What better solution to this embarrassing problem than distraction? Simply turn these annoying continuing education sessions into something other than a discussion of medical ethics. Turn it into, say, a two-hour session on recognizing financial fraud among the elderly. You’ve got to have something to talk about, after all – and defrauding the elderly is unethical, is it not? It is not hard to understand why physicians organizations are so supportive of the IPT’s new effort.
But, of course, the very first among the beneficiaries of the medicalization of elder fraud is the government.
Most directly, anything that helps to keep the estates of the (pleasantly) befuddled elderly intact, until they pass on to their more permanent rewards, will increase revenues to the state and federal governments through inheritance taxes.*
*DrRich leaves it to the reader to decide whether the benefits to the overall economy are greater if the accumulated wealth of the elderly is passed on to the government, or to perpetrators of fraud. Which entity – government or crooks – is more likely to make use of that money in a truly stimulatory fashion? It boils down to the old argument between Keynes and Hayak, of course. In the interest of both brevity and civility, DrRich declines to take up this argument at the present moment. Still and all, it is indeed a point for consideration.
But the government – and any healthcare payer – benefits immediately from this new program, even before the elderly person dies.
A major strategy in cutting the cost of healthcare – THE major strategy – must always be directed toward controlling the behavior of PCPs. This strategy, for instance, fully explains the massive tangle of uninterpretable rules and regulations which the PCP must painstakingly navigate today, the violation of any one of which is now a federal crime punishable by massive fines and imprisonment. Another tactic for controlling the PCP’s behavior is to severely constrain their face-time with patients, and to tightly regulate what must occur during these now-brief doctor-patient encounters.
Accordingly, during the 7.5 minutes allotted for each patient visit, the PCP must complete a 10-to-15-point checklist of required activities that fall under the rubric of “Pay for Performance.” Such checklists are designed, among other things, to keep the PCP and patient from straying off to address medical questions which do not appear on approved lists, and which might lead to unfortunate medical expenditures.
From the government’s standpoint, adding yet another obligation to the PCP’s critical checklist – an obligation which is so obviously beneficial to our elderly citizens, and which after all takes only three minutes to complete (leaving a full 4.5 minutes for actual medical issues) – is a very useful thing. And furthermore, it is the right thing. Anyone objecting to PCPs being directed to screen for financial abuse in their elderly patients immediately reveals themselves to be completely heartless and unfeeling and, likely, a Republican.
The PCPs, of course, are the only losers here. They are being asked to add yet another impossible task to their already-impossible list of jobs. Furthermore, as we have seen, once some outside body declares that it is the PCPs job to accomplish some impossible new task (such as assuring that all of their patients actually quit smoking), then our friends in the legal profession can immediately begin suing PCPs who fail to accomplish it.
So now the adult children of neglected elderly parents, finding that their inheritance has been frittered away because someone talked Pap-Pap into having a new roof installed on his house every year, will have somewhere to go to recover their damages.
If, as has been DrRich’s contention, the ultimate goal is to render primary care medicine so very odious, demeaning, exasperating and dangerous as to become a completely untenable proposition for any self-respecting American physician, so that by default the role of PCP will have to be filled with lower-level professionals who presumably will be more accepting of central directives, happier with checklists, and more comfortable with time-clocks than most doctors ever could be, then this new initiative is more than just a good idea. It is truly inspired.
This is a delicate topic, and even DrRich (who has displayed on these pages a willingness to risk alienating Progressives, Conservatives, President Obama’s minions, fat people, editors of prestigious medical journals, global warming enthusiasts, babies, bunnies, and even his beloved fellow cardiologists) is hesitant to bring it up.
But events force DrRich to throw caution to the wind, and issue a warning, and a plea, to those among the broad community of physicians for whom he has the most respect – the PCPs. The event to which DrRich refers, of course, is the recent, tragic gunning-down of a physician at Johns Hopkins University Hospital by a disgruntled patient (or rather, by the clearly disgruntled son of a possibly disgruntled patient).
This is DrRich’s warning: the recent shooting at Johns Hopkins may indicate that the long-predicted (predicted by DrRich, at least) bloodbath of American PCPs may now be at hand. And this is his plea (and here is where even the usually audacious DrRich must admit to a slight bit of trepidation): PCPs, for your own good, for the survival of primary care medicine, and therefore for the success of Obamacare, you must now prepare to defend yourselves.
Yes, dear readers, it is time for American PCPs to begin packing heat.
DrRich well understands that many of his readers at this moment doubtless think he has, at long last, lost it; that his finely-honed (and amply-demonstrated) abilities in logical discourse have finally taken their leave, that he has, sadly, gone ’round the bend. DrRich forgives you for this reaction.
After all, the doctor who was shot (whose identity has not been disclosed, but who is apparently expected to recover fully), works at Johns Hopkins, one of the premier medical institutions in the world. And therefore, while its leaders undoubtedly give the requisite lip service to the importance of primary care medicine, Johns Hopkins likely does not have very many actual PCPs frequenting its premises. So (DrRich’s clever readers correctly surmise), it seems very unlikely that the shooting victim was a PCP; and for him to find a lesson for PCPs in this unfortunate incident is obviously too ridiculous for words.
DrRich does not take such criticism personally. He realizes that those of you who doubt him in this case are not being mean-spirited, but merely misinformed. DrRich accepts the fact that most of you do not scour the relevant scientific literature with as much care as he does. And so, he does not expect you to be aware of the recent work of one David Fishbain, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami, who published a study in NewScientist Magazine which indicates that up to 1 in 20 patients would like to kill their primary care physicians.
Professor Fishbain learned this interesting tidbit in a survey he conducted among 800 patients undergoing physical rehabilitation or suffering significant pain.
Those PCPs who are reading this startling news, and who, by virtue of the fact that they are still working as PCPs, have have most likely honed their skills of denial to a high art form, are doubtless consoling themselves at this very moment with this observation: “Sure they want to kill me. But as they’re disabled, their chances of success seem low.”
So chew on this. In a control group of patients who were not suffering from pain or disability, Fishbain reported that “only” 1 in 50 admitted to having murderous tendencies toward their PCPs.
Any way you cut it, the math is not pretty: the typical PCP with a patient load of 3,000 souls can assume that at least 60 of these individuals (up to 150, if he/she treats a lot of patients with pain or disability) would not only like to see them dead, but would be pleased to be the instrument of their demise. Worse, even these statistics are surely unreasonably cheerful, as they rely on the likelihood that everyone who wants to see their doctor lying lifeless in a pool of blood are comfortable admitting this fact to medical researchers doing written surveys.
In any case, whatever the specialty might be of the physician who was shot at Johns Hopkins, it is the PCPs who are at the highest risk. And now that the shooting has actually begun, DrRich does not think PCPs should take much comfort in the possiblity that the first casualty may not have been one of them.
Why are patients murderously angry with their PCPs? Let us count the ways.
DrRich has expended much space and effort on this blog describing how PCPs have been maneuvered into covertly rationing healthcare at the bedside. Patients who go to their guideline-compliant, non-fraudulent PCPs these days will find themselves limited to 7.5 to 12.5 minutes of actual face time, most of which their doctor will spend sitting at a keyboard, staring at an LCD screen, desperately attempting to make the appropriate clicks on the most favorable little boxes next to a government-sanctioned Pay For Performance checklist. There will be little or no time for whatever pressing issues may be on the patient’s own (non-government-approved) agenda.
The patient, who has waited weeks for this opportunity, will be asked to wait weeks more for another appointment to discuss those other things – or will be directed to an emergency room.
But the greatest sin of all is that, to assuage their guilt and to make such behaviors seem less than reprehensible, physicians have allowed their professional organizations to formally adopt a new code of medical ethics, one which charges physicians with the task of achieving a just distribution of healthcare resources – namely, with covert healthcare rationing at the bedside. This new ethical obligation officially drives a stake into the heart of the classic doctor-patient relationship, and is an abject admission that the practice of medicine no longer constitutes a real profession.
Patients may not know the niceties of this New Age medical ethics – they may not be able to articulate the reasons they feel abandoned in their hour of need – but they certainly perceive its effects on their lives. Their anger is not unjustified.
The fallout for the medical profession from all these developments has landed disproportionately on the PCP. For most patients, their PCP is the face of the medical profession, and it is in the PCP’s office where they most often experience the changes.
PCP’s, of course, are no happier with this new reality than are their patients. The loss of their professional integrity and their ability to act as autonomous advocates for their patients has (far more than the steady ratcheting down of their pay) made primary care medicine an exquisitely unattractive proposition, both to current practitioners and to potential future PCPs.
Unfortunately, any notion that this damage to primary care medicine can be readily reversed is sadly mistaken. It would be a great mistake, for instance, to place the blame for all this on Obamacare. While Obamacare will indeed utterly rely on PCPs to do the dirty work of covert rationing, the basis for such reliance was established long ago by the medical profession itself, which voluntarily adopted their New Age ethics several years before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama or his healthcare reforms.
So it should be no wonder that patients are pissed. And since that which is pissing them off is not going away anytime soon, and indeed is about to become greatly accelerated, PCPs must be alert to the likelihood that the lethal ideations entertained by a small but not insignificant proportion of American patients may soon find an outlet beyond mere daydreaming. The Johns Hopkins shooting ought to be a wake-up call to all doctors – but especially to the American PCP.
And so, as a public service, DrRich reluctantly suggests that perhaps it is time for PCPs to prepare to defend themselves in one of the few ways they have left to do so.
PCPs may have lost everything else, but to this point, at least, they still have the second amendment to rely on.
DrRich has decided it is time to begin studying the 2700-page healthcare reform bill that the Senate passed on December 24, as that is the bill which will actually become the law of the land. In the fall, DrRich had spent quite a bit of time with the House bill. This was such a painful and useless exercise that DrRich decided he would not waste any more of his time with proposed legislation, but instead (as Nancy Pelosi has wisely suggested) would wait until Congress passed a bill so he could find out what’s in it.
Now, DrRich does not have the stamina to study the new law all at once, as a whole. He must bite off little pieces. And the first thing he sought in embarking on his study of our new healthcare system was evidence of how the new law would rescue the Primary Care Physician.
This is important, since everyone acknowledges that we have a severe shortage of PCPs already, and when we add 32 million Americans to the rolls of the insured, that shortage will become extremely acute. Further, we know that very few medical school graduates are deciding to become PCPs, and further, that the PCPs who are in practice today are becoming older rapidly, and many may not be around in 10 years (or even in 10 months, once this reform bill passes).
As we all have heard, our President and his Congress have explicitly recognized the problem, and have frequently explicated on the need to build up and support our beleaguered primary care workforce. They have promised that their healthcare reforms will aggressively address this issue. And it is largely due to this promise that prominent physician organizations, like the AMA (which really represents a relatively small minority of the medical profession) and the American College of Physicians (which represents a large proportion of internists, of whom many are PCPs), have come out in support of the President’s reform efforts.
DrRich believes, of course, that for the Feds to suddenly make themselves the champions of PCPs, after spending nearly two decades systematically rendering primary care medicine a completely untenable proposition for American physicians, would be an unlikely outcome for any reform bill. Just to remind his readers, here’s what DrRich has previously observed about the carefully engineered plight of the American PCP:
“Their pay is determined arbitrarily by Acts of Congress, not by what they’re worth to their patients or to the market, and indeed in this way PCPs have a lot in common with workers in the old Soviet collectives.
They are directed to “practice medicine” by guidelines and directives which are handed down from on high; guidelines which, being forcibly based on what is called “evidence-based medicine,” necessarily address the average response of some large group of patients to the treatment being considered and do not allow much if any latitude for an individual patient’s needs; and which are often promulgated less to assure the excellent care of patients and more to further the agenda of various and competing interest groups, professional, governmental and otherwise.
They are limited to between 7.5 and 12.5 minutes per patient encounter (depending on the third party that controls a given patient’s medical care), and the content of what must occur during those 7.5 minutes is strictly determined by sundry Pay for Performance checklists, so as to strictly limit any interchanges between doctor and patient that do not meet the approved agenda for such encounters.
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 healthcare accountants and other stone-witted bureaucrats who are employed specifically to second-guess every clinical decision and every action the PCP takes.
They are expected to operate flawlessly under a system of federal rules, regulations and guidelines that cover hundreds of thousands of pages in immeasurable volumes that are never available in any readily accessible form. If they do not operate flawlessly according to those rules, regulations and guidelines, they are guilty of the federal crime of healthcare fraud. Furthermore, the specific meanings of these rules, regulations and guidelines are not merely opaque and difficult to ascertain, but indeed they are fundamentally indeterminate – that is, no individual or group of individuals in existence can say what they mean. So, PCPs operate under a massive quantum cloud of rules as best they can, but their actual status (regarding healthcare fraud) is, like Schrodinger’s cat, fundamentally unknowable – until the “box is opened” (typically through criminal prosecution), whereupon the meaning of the rules is finally crystallized in a court of law, and doctors who had been practicing in good faith find that they have at least a 50- 50 chance (like the cat) of learning that they are actually professionally dead.
Worst of all, PCPs have been charged with the duty of covertly rationing their patients’ healthcare at the bedside, and they 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.”
How does our new healthcare law propose to “fix” these problems? DrRich can find two proposed solutions in the Senate bill.
First, the new law promises to address some of the pay discrepancy which punishes doctors for going into primary care specialties. It is unclear to DrRich how much this new pay fix will bring to PCPs. He will merely observe that, until now, the Feds have intentionally rendered primary care medicine such a soul-wrenching, personally and professionally demeaning endeavor that it has pushed most PCPs beyond mere anger, frustration, or resignation. Many of them are desperately looking for any practicable exit strategy. And to DrRich’s thinking, since it is not primarily their relatively low income that has caused all this anguish, a mere boost in income cannot overcome it.
But, of course, that’s for the PCPs themselves to decide.
Second, the new law proposes to fund new training opportunities for PCPs. This also sounds nice. But DrRich wonders what effect these new training programs will have, when the training programs that already exist cannot come close to filling their slots.
DrRich contends that these two stated “fixes” for manufacturing more PCPs cannot possibly provide an actual solution to the PCP shortage, and further, that the authors of the Senate bill cannot possibly believe they will. And so, DrRich decided to look a little deeper.
The answer to the PCP shortage – at least, the answer our political leaders are actually relying upon – is revealed deep in the Senate bill, in Section 5501, where the definition of “Primary Care Practitioner” is actually provided. Note, first of all, that once this bill becomes the law of the land, “PCP” will no longer mean “primary care physician,” but rather, will mean “primary care practitioner.”
And here’s how the new law defines Primary Care Practioners:
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))
And so, to his readers who are primary care physicians, DrRich must report that the real “fix” your political leaders have envisioned for the PCP shortage has been to declare you and nurse practitioners to be functionally (and legally) equivalent. This, DrRich submits, is all you need to know.
Having painstakingly reduced you unfortunate practitioners of primary care medicine to tools of the state – whose job is to follow the guidelines and place chits on the checklists which are handed down from on high, and to fill out the electronic forms which are designed not to advance patient care but to convenience the healthcare accountants who will thereby judge your “quality” – 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.
DrRich must hasten to add, by the way, that, regarding the nurse practitioners, he believes the Feds have miscalculated. DrRich knows a lot of nurse practitioners and greatly admires their professionalism. He believes that “PCP” has been so successfully demeaned that many fewer nurse practitioners than our political leaders think will actually jump at the opportunity to become one (especially when you take into account the liability you assume when you become a PCP in a non-tort-reform paradigm like the one our leaders have made for us). Trusting in their common sense, DrRich will leave the nurse practitioners to their own wise counsel.
To his primary care physician friends, who have bravely held on, clinging to the promises made by our political leaders that their noble efforts will not go unrewarded, and to the assurances made by their own professional organizations that all will be well once the system is reformed, DrRich is forced to say: Told you so.
He also reminds you that it is still not illegal to opt out, and urges you to consider that it soon might be.