Even Dermatologists Have Skin In This Game

DrRich | June 1st, 2010 - 6:50 am

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Recently, DrRich wrote a series of posts detailing how the American healthcare system – even before the new reforms kick in – is taking steps to prevent individual citizens from being allowed to spend their own money on their own healthcare. Part of that effort, of course, is to restrict physicians from offering direct-pay medical services to their patients.

DrRich may have given the impression that only primary care doctors are affected by efforts to restrict their practices in this way. If so, he apologizes.

He particularly owes an apology to his friends the dermatologists. Indeed, DrRich has been reminded of an article that appeared in the New York Times a while back, which castigated dermatologists for the sin of establishing direct-pay practices, and in particular, for creating their own brand of a two-tiered healthcare system – one for patients with skin disorders, and one for “cosmetic dermatology.”

As the Times describes it, patients who wish to see a dermatologist for, say, possible skin cancer are put on a waiting list, and when their appointed time finally arrives (generally several months later) they are subjected to modern medical hell. To wit: Upon arriving in a lackluster office, the patient is shelved for a while in an unattractive, poorly lit waiting room equipped with a broken TV, fuzz balls on the floor, old magazines, the unruly children of other patients, and surly office personnel. Eventually the now-even-more-disheartened patient’s name is called by an indifferent nurse practitioner, who, operating from a checklist of questions, will “triage” her to the appropriate patient-category (e.g., acne, fungus, cancer, warts- you know, dermatology stuff), then have her strip in order to fully expose the large organ (i.e., the skin) for which she has sought assistance, hand her a scratchy yellow paper gown to cover her nakedness, and have her wait for some time in a chilly exam room to see His Holiness, the actual doctor. At last the dermatologist arrives, mutters a greeting (or some other ritual uttering), glances at a clipboard, and announces, “Show me your [acne, fungus, cancer, warts];” whereupon, having regarded the cause of cutaneous concern, and having made a professional determination, he either signs the prescription that has been pre-written for him by the nurse practitioner, or schedules a procedure. Then, placing her bundle of clothing into her arms and wishing her a good day, the doctor shoves her out into the hall to finish dressing, as the formal interview is completed, and the exam room is at a premium.

Presumably, one hopes, some dermatology practices not visited by the New York Times might not be quite so bad. Still, anyone who’s been seen by an American PCP lately will nod sympathetically at the dermatology patient’s ordeal.

Now observe what the Times observes when the patient, instead of having an actual skin problem, merely is sagging here and there and wishes to be shorn up. That is, the patient has a cosmetic issue. That is, the patient wants Botox.

The same dermatologist will often have an entirely different setup for these patients. This time the patient is seen immediately, possibly the same day, as dermatologists are sensitive to the needs of their clients who have an impending public engagement, and thus need to look their best. If this patient is to wait at all, she will wait in a modern, tastefully decorated private room. She will then be seen not by a mere nurse practitioner but by an aesthetician, who will do a careful assessment of the sagging parts, and, aside from suggesting more injection sites than the patient might originally have had in mind, will offer a complete program for long-term cosmetic maintenance, which naturally will include quarterly Botoxification. At just the proper moment the dermatologist comes in, greets the patient warmly and reassuringly; then reviews the recommendations of the aesthetician and discusses those recommendations at length with both the aesthetician and the patient, studying the patient’s face in depth as he does so, pointing, nodding, studying, adjusting, all the while smiling confidently. Yes, he indicates, we will all be very happy indeed with the results. Finally the doctor begins to make the now-thoroughly-discussed-and-agreed-upon injections, doing so with the greatest solicitude and sensitivity. The patient is then given as much time as she needs to collect herself, and is invited to “recover” in a room set aside for this purpose, with flattering lighting, soft music, a cappuccino machine, and perhaps a glass of wine. She leaves the office a new person. And, just as the dermatologist has promised, all are indeed very happy with the outcome.

Naturally, the New York Times is scandalized by the dichotomy which its discerning readers will note here. Why should a patient with a mere cosmetic issue be treated so well, when a patient with an actual medical problem, possibly even skin cancer, is treated so shabbily? How can dermatologists openly encourage such a two-tiered system?

DrRich has a word of advice for the scandalized reporters of the New York Times, and any other concerned Americans who are worried that dermatologists, by setting up separate-but-not-equal practices for their two kinds of patients, are moving us one step closer to the dreaded two-tiered healthcare system we all abhor. That word is: Chill.

Allow DrRich to support this friendly recommendation with two observations.

1) We already have a multi-tiered healthcare system, and little or none of it is the fault of dermatologists. It is the fault of human nature. All countries have at least a two-tiered healthcare system, including countries (like Cuba and China) that have specifically embraced egalitarianism (rather than individual autonomy) as the fundamental operating principle. A second tier is necessary if for no other reason than political leaders and other individuals critically important to the collective effort must have somewhere to go for their healthcare.  The second tier, like the poor, will always be with us.

2) When a dermatologist spends Tuesday afternoon in her run-down office, treating people who come to her for bona fide skin disorders like they’re not really patients but widgets on an assembly line, then spends Wednesday in her other, much more amenable offices, treating the merely cosmetically-challenged like they are minor nobility, she is not really engaging in two-tiered healthcare. Not at all. Instead, on Tuesday she is practicing real, true, prescribed-by-society, by-the-book American healthcare, just as our leaders (in their wisdom) have carefully set it up for us, and on Wednesday she is doing Something Altogether Different.

Injecting Botox is officially and formally not part of American healthcare. How do we know this? Because it is not covered by Medicare or health insurance. If you want Botox you’ve got to pay for it your own self, just as you do if you want a TV or a car. So by all that is sacred, injecting Botox is NOT American healthcare.

Furthermore, when one looks at it objectively, injecting Botox is not even really practicing medicine, at least not in any true sense. In actual truth, it takes very little training or expertise to inject Botox. There’s no reason one must go to college, graduate from medical school, or do several additional years of training in dermatology (or any other specialty) to do this. Anyone with a needle and syringe, an alcohol wipe, and access to Botox could do as well. Just find the wrinkle and stick it. If they made the materials available over-the-counter, most folks would do just fine with it.

The sheer arbitrariness by which injecting Botox is deemed by the authorities to constitute the practice of medicine can also be illustrated by considering a somewhat different, equally well-known cosmetic procedure, one that also involves injecting substances through the skin via needles, and that has much more to do with the actual skin itself than Botox injections (which do not really affect the skin itself, but only the muscles under the skin). DrRich speaks, obviously, of the tattoo. But unlike making Botox injections, tattooing requires real skill, knowledge, training, expertise and artistic talent. Most dermatologists simply could not manage a highly technical skill like that.  The point being, of course, that if you were to describe Botox injections and tattooing to a visitor from Mars, then ask him/her/it which of these two dermatological procedures ought to require a medical license and board certification, the Martian would get it wrong every time.

DrRich understands, of course, that while administering Botox is, in practical and objective terms, no more practicing medicine than is applying an ice-pack to a bruised knee, legally it is indeed deemed to be the practice of medicine. Accordingly, doctors in general (and dermatologists in particular), relying on this nonsensical designation, have legally cornered the market on Botox injections. So it’s not like you could just set up a booth at the Mall and hire high school students to do this (as you can for, say, ear-piercing – which, in contrast to Botox injections, is an actual surgical procedure which is intended to result in a permanent structural change in a body part). If you set up a chain of Botox Booths, you would be practicing medicine without a license, which is a serious crime.

But fundamentally, while performing Botox injections may have a certain legal status, in any true sense it is not really practicing medicine.  Not when ear-piercing and tattooing are not. Rather, in real life, injecting Botox is simply an activity some dermatologists may choose to do when they’re not doing real dermatology.

To say it another way, when the dermatologist goes to her “other office” to cater to a self-paying variety of clientele, she is practicing medicine only from the most arbitrary and strictly legalistic viewpoint. In real life, she is doing Something Else. She is engaging in a Pastime.

Doctors, of course, often have Pastimes. That is, they partake in activities other than practicing medicine when they could, in fact, be seeing more patients. Some have taken up golf. Others have started side businesses such as restaurants or software companies. Some do charity work, or go to graduate school for an MBA. Still others have opted to work part time in order to raise their families.

Society generally finds such activities acceptable, and – to this point – does not insist that all doctors forgo all other human endeavors in order to see as many patients as humanly possible, during all their waking hours. While society seems to be moving closer to declaring that doctors owe this duty to the collective, it has not reached this point quite yet.

Until society sees fit to legislate otherwise (which, DrRich supposes, could happen really very soon now), doctors will continue to spend some of their time engaging in hobbies and business or family activities outside of the formal healthcare system. Some may even leave the formal healthcare system altogether in favor of these other activities. DrRich himself has done this. And until society renders it officially illegal for doctors to do so, DrRich respectfully asks that doctors be left alone to celebrate their individual autonomy as granted to them under America’s founding documents, whether it’s by establishing authentic Indian restaurants, setting up Botox clinics, or even becoming direct-pay practitioners.

One last word of advice for DrRich’s dermatology friends: Have fun with your Botox clinics for now, fellas and ladies, but please don’t become too invested in them.  This is definitely a shallow-moat line of business, and the only thing that gives you any protection at all is your aura as highly trained specialists, with special and secret knowledge about an organ (i.e., the skin) which visibly droops when the underlying muscles become lax with age and gravity. A single action by forces entirely out of your control – say, Congress or the FDA – could render your monopoly entirely moot overnight, and you will be instantly priced out of business by hordes of PCPs, nurse practitioners, Botox booths in Walmart, and even home Botox injection kits. So please remember to at least keep your hand in genuine dermatology, or get your MBA, or perfect your long iron shots, or even learn a real skill, like tattooing – but do something that will provide you with a Plan C. Because Plan Botox is definitely a high risk endeavor over the long term.

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Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

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5 Responses to “Even Dermatologists Have Skin In This Game”

  1. Dear Dr. Rich,

    You’ve got it all wrong. A dermatologist would never tell a patient that they’ll be “happy with the results”. This would make said dermatologist a perfect target for a lawsuit when the patient perceives that he or she still does not have the skin of a 20 year-old model.

    Our attorney friends are always there on a fee-for-service basis, you know…

    • DrRich says:

      Doug,

      Normally I would agree with you. But remember that here, these dermatologists are not practicing medicine – they are doing Something Else.

      They are making people pretty. And if you can make people believe they are pretty, they are pretty. Talking up the results is not unnecessary boasting in this case, it is an integral part of the product.

      Rich

  2. carol foulds says:

    These patients are lucky that they even get in on Tuesday. Many dermatologists won’t see general dermatology patients
    period. Why because you can’t make a living running a practice based on collections from Insurance companies.
    As far as Walmart Botox………well you’re going to have lots of funny looking people walking around. It ain’t that easy and there will always be those who will pay for quality.
    If everyone wants cheap incorrectly injected Botox there’s no reason why Derms can’t learn to do Breast Augmentation so don’t count on any dermatology slaves for Obama.

    • DrRich says:

      Carol,

      From what I’ve seen of some Botox results, don’t you mean “funnier” looking?

      I agree that many people will pay for quality. So as long as the feds don’t make it illegal to pay for quality, there will be plenty of work for good dermatologists, and every other kind of doctor. That’s why they’re tying to make it illegal.

      Rich

  3. Ruth H says:

    I remember seeing a report about a couple in Florida (or somewhere in the US) who were given Botox that was not diluted properly (or at all) who both ended up on ventilators from the overdose. I think this was genuine “news” a few years ago and not just urban legend. Anyway, seems feasible that Botox could cause Genuine Medical Problems in the hands of the uninitiated. (of course, in the hypothetical world of Walmart Botox they could just be sure it was only available in the proper dilution, if you want to trust manufacturers)

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