Physician Report Cards and the Designated Driver

DrRich | June 22nd, 2009 - 10:57 am

A study in the February 2008 issue of the American Heart Journal shows that cardiologists in New York State are less willing to aggressively treat patients with severe heart attacks than cardiologists in other states, and that the mortality of these patients is significantly higher in New York. The authors of the report attribute this reticence to treat to the existence of public report cards in New York, which publish doctors’ names alongside their procedure-related mortality figures.

The study compared the treatments and the outcomes in 220 New York patients with 325 patients from states without public reporting systems, who had shock (severe circulatory instability) caused by myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). They found that patients in New York were significantly less likely to receive either diagnostic cardiac catheterizations or stents. Both groups of patients were equally likely to receive coronary artery bypass surgery, but the surgery was significantly delayed in patients from New York. Among all patients, the risk of death in the hospital was 50% higher in New York than in other states. But among patients who actually received either stents or bypass surgery, there was no significant difference in mortality.

There are many advantages of physician report cards to a system based on covert rationing. Let us review the many benefits that accrue to the payers:

1) Fewer expensive procedures are being done
2) Fewer emergency procedures are being done (procedures like the ones being avoided in this study are often performed in the middle of the night and on weekends, entailing overtime payments and other excess overhead.)
3) More high-risk patients (destined to be chronically expensive) die expeditiously.
4) The docs who do persist in doing these high-risk procedures stand out even more in the public report cards.
5) Eventually, NOT doing these high risk procedures will become the new de facto standard of care, and outliers then can be dealt with directly (instead of relying on bad report cards to weed them out).
6) All the while, payers can stand upon the altar of altruism, proclaiming transparency and the patient’s right to know.

The inappropriately negative fallout experienced by physicians conducting potentially life-saving procedures on high risk patients, of course, could be easily overcome by appropriate risk-adjustment methodologies (to account, for instance, for the very high mortality predicted for any patient presenting with shock due to myocardial infarction). But doing so would wreck the whole notion of using public report cards to further the cause of covert rationing. (See items 1 – 6, above.)

But, as usual, DrRich has a solution.

It’s called the Designated Driver.

Imagine the distinguished Chief of Cardiology approaching a promising 31-year-old cardiology fellow, who is finally at the end of his long course of training and at last is ready to enter practice, and saying, “Son, you are going to have a brief but spectacular career. You are going to be our Designated Driver.”

For an extraordinary annual salary and immediate vesting in a generous pension plan, this young man is going to have the honor of being the one who gets all the high-risk cases for the group. He will agree to do this as long as it is feasible, that is, as long as he’s not run out of town because his report card is so abysmally bad. Given the inefficiencies of collecting and processing data for report cards (a process controlled by tangled bureaucracies of one flavor or another, and often, by several tangled bureaucracies that have to devise even more tangled processes for some semblance of cooperation), this is likely to take at least 5 years, and in many cases may take 10. With a sufficient number of more “routine” cardiac cases tossed his way by his sympathetic colleagues (to help him buffer his report card statistics), he may be able to survive 12 or even 15 years. But in any case, by the time he is in, say, his late 30s, he’ll be able to retire quite comfortably.

The Designated Driver scheme is a win-win for everybody (almost). Very sick patients can get the procedures they need (i.e., the ethics of medicine can be shored up for a bit). Your typical cardiologist can enjoy his/her long, relatively risk-free career. And your young, aggressive cardiologist will be presented with a glorious challenge not unlike those of the gladiators of antiquity (save that when it’s finally time to face the old “thumbs down,” they will be spirited to a much more agreeable retirement.)

This solution, as brilliant as it is, will attract critics. And those critics will eventually demand or pass laws, regulations, and guidelines to turn the Designated Driver into merely one more manifestation of the federal crime of healthcare fraud, punishable by the usual massive fines and jail time.

So when that time comes we’ll have to think of something else. But for now, given the alternatives, DrRich recommends the Designated Driver to cardiologists in the great State of New York.

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