Breaking the Doctor-Patient Relationship (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 3)

DrRich | April 25th, 2010 - 10:46 pm



Part 1 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

Part 2 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives


The thing about Progressives is that the characteristic which makes them most endearing (and, which makes them most attractive to the unaware), is the very characteristic which makes them the most dangerous.

Fundamentally, Progressives believe in the perfectibility of mankind, or at least, of society. Indeed, they have discovered the very Program which will lead to the perfect society, a society which will maximize the good of the whole. Their vision is so compelling, and their ends so utterly and undeniably right, that it becomes legitimate for them to engage in whatever means are necessary to achieve it. (Indeed, for those who have been paying attention, “By Whatever Means Necessary” appears to have supplanted “Hope and Change” as the catchphrase of our current political leaders.)

The thing that always trips up Progressives (and their more revolutionary cousins, the Communists), is, of course, human nature. In order for their Program to work, it is necessary for each individual to behave in the prescribed fashion. And, at the end of the day, a substantial proportion of the population (any population) will insist on striving for their own individual benefit, rather than (as the Program requires) for the benefit of the collective.

The major competing system of societal organization – capitalism – recognizes this facet of human nature (i.e., the essential imperfectability of mankind, as manifested by the non-suppressibility of self-interest), and attempts to channel it into relatively productive and non-destructive (but still competitive and individually-directed) behaviors that limit the damage, and maximize the public good to a reasonable degree.

In contrast, Progressives attempt to change human nature to fit their inherently superior Program.

The fact that you cannot change human nature to fit the Program is what makes them dangerous. Their initial wide-eyed optimism that us folks will just “get it,” once they explain it to us, invariably evolves to an essential contempt for our limited intellectual capacity. This contempt justifies all manner of prevarications, to fool us into going along. Even in societies where the tyranny of correct-thinking has gone so far as to elicit the cooperation of the people at the point of a gun (rather than through the preferred methods of “education” or misdirection), the achievement of the predicted perfect society is invariably prevented by the recalcitrance of human nature. (The final realization that not even an all-powerful central authority can make people behave in the prescribed way always produces a nearly psychotic frustration that – in virtually every Communist country – has led to atrocities against various subsets of the recalcitrant people.)

DrRich does not believe there will ever be pogroms in the United States.

But this does not mean that the Progressives will always be kind and gentle as they attempt to achieve their goals. As DrRich sees it, in the U.S. the Progressives have clearly evolved to the “contempt for the masses” phase of their Program, a phase which justifies all manner of techniques – just this side of violence – to get us all to cooperate. Currently they are intent on demonizing their opponents as being racist, stupid, uneducated, selfish, overly dependent on outmoded supernatural beings, violent, and (of course) obese. This demonization is quite useful, since there is obviously no need to address any actual ideas put forth by such as these, even if they were capable of the feat of “ideas.”

Healthcare is, at present, the chief battleground in the war between Progressives vs. non-Progressives in the U.S., and the outcome of this battle will likely determine the success or failure of the entire Progressive Program. And the most fundamental (and emblematic) aspect of this battle is over what to do about the “doctor-patient relationship.”

The classic doctor-patient relationship was a celebration of the primacy of individual rights. And, for over 2000 years (at least since the advent of the Hippocratic Oath) guaranteeing the sanctity of that relationship was the basis of all medical ethics.

Until very recently doctors, patients, philosophers and ethicists recognized that, when you are sick, you are no more capable of navigating a complex and hostile healthcare system than are accused felons a complex and hostile legal system, and you are no less in peril if you run afoul of that system. And, just as the felon has a right to a personal advocate, a professional whose job is to protect his individual interests against the conflicting aims of the “system,” so does the patient. That is (quaint conventional wisdom held), when you are sick, you should be entitled to at least the same protections as when you rob a convenience store. And the doctor-patient relationship was supposed to guarantee you that right.

This is why, throughout the ages, the basic precepts of medical ethics were aimed at guaranteeing the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Fundamentally, these ethical precepts required the physician to place the needs of his or her individual patient above all other considerations.

It should be clear to everyone that, under either our “old” healthcare system or the one that Obamacare promises us, this formulation of the doctor-patient relationship cannot be allowed to stand. Neither the insurance executives nor government officials can allow spending decisions – that is, decisions on how to spend their money – to be made by individual patients (and their personal advocates). For this reason, the classic doctor-patient relationship had to go.

And so, in 2002, official medical ethics was formally amended to require physicians (while still giving lip service to their obligation to individual patients) to strive for a “just distribution of healthcare resources.” That is, official medical ethics now makes it ethical for physicians to ration healthcare, covertly, at the bedside – and indeed, makes it unethical for them to fail to do so.

The New Ethics has been enthusiastically supported by medical ethicists worldwide (a field which now seems to be dominated by utilitarians), and worse, has been embraced by all the world’s major medical professional organizations. DrRich has not embraced the New Ethics (on the grounds that it places individual patients at great peril, and destroys the profession of medicine), and neither have many (possibly a majority) of older physicians. But it has been taught in medical schools around the world for over a decade, and in another decade it is likely that the vast majority of practicing physicians will accept as a matter of course that their primary obligation is to control healthcare costs, and only secondarily to try to meet the needs of their individual patients.

The plan, therefore, is for Obamacare to provide physicians with directives from expert panels on which medical services to supply to which patients and when, and for the New Ethics to allow physicians who go along with such directives to live with themselves. The feasibility of this plan depends entirely on physicians acceding to the program.

So, incentives are being put in place to “help” doctors cooperate. Quality measures will be implemented, with “quality” being defined as doctors doing what they’re told, and reimbursement will be tied to one’s quality rating. Possibly more persuasive will be the fact that the Feds can construe the failure to follow handed-down rules, regulations and guidelines, at any time, as a federal crime. (Even doctors who don’t mind being labeled as “substandard quality” – perhaps even considering the label as a badge of honor – will mind going to jail.)

But by whatever means necessary, the happiness of the government is to be the doctor’s first consideration, and not the happiness of their individual patients. The classic doctor-patient relationship is being terminated with extreme prejudice.

To see just how important it is to destroy the doctor-patient relationship, one merely has to observe what is happening to primary care doctors who have the audacity to leave the system, and set up a direct-pay medical practice.

Part of the problem, to be sure, was caused by these doctors themselves. The first few to do so unabashedly catered to rich patients, and to attract the rich, referred to themselves as “concierge” practitioners. This name (and its elitist connotations) have been forcibly affixed to all direct-pay practitioners, even as this style of practice has evolved into a much more democratic form. Today, more and more doctors are starting direct-pay practices (in which patients pay the doctors out of their own pockets) which are easily affordable to anyone who can afford a cell phone or cable TV contract.

While many direct-pay practices offer patients certain benefits they can usually not get from primary care doctors who remain in the approved system (such as phone and e-mail access, same-day appointments, appointments lasting as long as necessary instead of the allotted 7.5 minutes, etc.), the fundamental benefit, to both the patient and the doctor, is that it restores the classic doctor-patient relationship. The physician’s primary obligation is no longer to the 3rd-party overlord, or to the Progressive ideal of social justice, but to the patient.

And while critics (who abound) attack direct-pay practitioners for their elitism, laziness, and greed, their real issue is that direct-pay practitioners are acting as if their primary duty is to their individual patients, and not to the needs of society. This latter fault simply cannot be tolerated.

Having gained nearly complete control over the behavior of primary care practitioners, it is critical for Progressives – in making sure that practice by handed-down “guidelines” is not simply the only legal way to practice, but also the only ethical way to practice – to shut the door to any alternative forms of primary care. Direct-pay practitioners are a menace because they threaten to raise the expectations of both doctors and patients. Perhaps, doctors and patients might tell themselves, there really is a way to maintain individual autonomy within the healthcare system.

The attacks on direct-pay practitioners have followed the usual scheme Progressives follow when they discover a faction they need to suppress. First, they were ridiculed. “For a Retainer, Lavish Care by ‘Boutique Doctors,’” said a headline in the New York Times in 2005. Then, they were demonized, widely attacked for their elitism, laziness, greed, and lack of fundamental medical ethics. In this latter effort, it was not difficult to find fellow physicians – generally, from the medical organizations which promulgated the New Ethics – to lead the attacks. There are countless examples. DrRich will give just two.

Anthony DeMaria, then President of the American College of Cardiology, criticized the practice of direct-pay medicine in an article in the JACC in 2005, saying, “Personally, I do not mind if people acquire yachts or personal trainers if they have enough money, nor would I object if they secured a physician at their beck and call. However, unlike yachts, health care is not discretionary, and everyone should be entitled to the same quality.” As a matter of social justice, direct-pay physicians improve healthcare quality for only some patients, and so have no place in the healthcare system.

In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Troyen A. Brennan (M.D., J.D., and M.P.H., so we know we’re in trouble) really gets to the point. Referring to direct-pay practices as “luxury primary care,” he notes that “traditional medical ethics is rather poorly equipped to address issues related to luxury primary care.” That is, while “traditional” medical ethics always places the individual patient first, that kind of thinking is now outmoded. “(M)ost ethicists now agree that the financial structure of health care is an important subject for ethical consideration. Access to health care, in particular, is a salient ethical issue.” Direct-pay practitioners threaten (by their elitism and the limited size of their practices), to limit access to primary care, and thus are in fundamental violation of medical ethics.

The argument here, for those who missed it (advanced by fellow physicians no less), is that, of the two competing ethical precepts now established by New Medical Ethics (i.e., the physician’s obligation to the individual patient vs. the physician’s obligation to society), clear primacy is to be given to the physician’s obligation to society. Physicians must (like it or not) participate in covert bedside healthcare rationing. Physicians who take the only path remaining to them that allows them to make the individual patient their primary obligation are to be castigated as ethically deficient.

When ridicule and demonization fail to suppress their opposition, Progressive dogma indicates it’s time to resort to force. The first pass in this regard, of course, is always to render the opposition illegal. (Actual violence is reserved for criminals who persist in their misbehavior, despite more polite efforts to get them to behave lawfully.)

Making direct-pay medical practice illegal has not been accomplished yet, but clear efforts have been made in this regard. Noting with alarm the rise of direct-pay primary care, numerous Congresspersons have issued statements of concern, suggesting that perhaps Congress should look into the propriety of such activities.

Indeed, the first step by Congress has already been taken. In 2003, as part of the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, Congress directed the GAO to study and report on the effect of direct-pay practices on Medicare patients. The GAO did so in 2005, and a fair paraphrase of its report is as follows: “The practice of direct-pay medicine is not currently a threat to Medicare patients, because the direct-pay movement is not large enough yet to have an impact. If it does begin to have an impact on Medicare patients, action will have to be taken.” That is, direct-pay medicine was considered OK in 2005 not because it was inherently an ethical and legal form of medical practice, but simply because there were not enough practitioners at that time to significantly affect Medicare patients. The clear implication is that Congress stands ready to pass laws outlawing – or, at least, severely limiting – direct-pay practices, as soon as those practices begin to “impact” the system.

Certain state governments are not waiting for Congress to ban direct-pay practices. The state of Maryland (and a few others) have taken the creative position that, because many direct-pay practices work on a retainer basis, they meet the definition of a health insurance company. And as a health insurance company, to be considered legal entities, they have to have millions of dollars set aside to pay for unforeseen “claims.” (Interestingly, this same argument was not applied to Maryland lawyers, who also often work on a retainer model.) According to the Baltimore Sun, the state’s stance in this regard has already successfully caused several primary care physicians to abandon their plans to become retainer practitioners.

Less devious (but more draconian) than the state of Maryland is the state of Massachusetts (whose universal healthcare system, we’ve all heard, is a preview of Obamacare circa 2015). A bill is under consideration in the Massachusetts Senate (Bill 2170) which requires doctors, as a condition of their licensure, to accept payment rates as determined by the government. If it passes, it will be the first actual legislation in the U.S. to ban direct-pay medicine, if only by making it completely impracticable. (Thanks to Dr. Wes for pointing out this important development.)

Since medical licensing is controlled by the various states, of course, it would take 50 bills like the one in Massachusetts to really get rid of direct-pay healthcare. But there are other ways for the Feds to accomplish the same thing. Now that the federal government directly controls all student loans, for instance, it would be a simple matter to make those loans contingent on agreeing to become primary care doctors working strictly within the government controlled system, or to offer loan forgiveness for doctors who agree to do so, or to rescind favorable re-payment conditions (retroactively, and decades after the fact, if necessary) for doctors who go to a direct-pay model later in life.

DrRich does not really know how the Progressives will actually place the final nail in the coffin of the doctor-patient relationship. All he knows is that they have – well, more than the desire – the deep and abiding need to kill that relationship, once and for all. Unless we the people decide we ought to stop them, this is going to happen.


Part 4 of Limiting Individual Prerogatives

4 Responses to “Breaking the Doctor-Patient Relationship (Limiting Individual Prerogatives, Part 3)”

  1. [...] While it’s too early to talk meaningfully about a specialty decision (though you’re more than welcome to start a betting pool…) it’s not too early for me to say this:  the only way I would seriously consider paediatrics, general internal medicine, or family practice residency in the US is if the retainer model of practice is still viable when it comes time to decide (i.e. hasn’t been banned by law or marginalized by organized medicine). [...]

  2. [...] profession’s real moral obligation, which is to your patients – you had better act now, before it becomes a federal crime to do so. « Why We Still See Sudden Death in Young Athletes You can leave a [...]

  3. [...] 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 [...]

  4. Danielle says:

    I personally would forgo a self-pay only physician.
    It’s a major legal and ethical issue.

    The concern here isn’t only money, but also the quality of care and the standards consumers are assured of when they purchace insurance through agents which act on their behalf.
    there are two groups who know more about medical procedures then me…my Dr. and my insurance provider.
    Who are these self-pay or hybrid doctotors held accountable to for their services or lack of ?
    This may seem appealing to a patient, however, the discretion of care, and billing is left soley to the physisian whom the patient is reliant upon to provide a service and fairly bill
    for the service.
    It is especially concerning in the mental health field where it appears the majority of therapists and physcatrists who require a patient to use them a a “team” in order to receive care.
    What if you need to work with a Dr. in another specialty which take insurance and requires a diagnosis which comes a lil to late cause your self-pay Dr. is lining his pocket?
    Self pay Dr.s force you into a contract with them. Soley. And they gave up practicing medicine with insurance co.’s for their own overhead!
    Does this not leave open a door for pateints who “doctor shop”?
    Is is not more difficult to identify Physicans who “patient shop”?
    We already have an epidemic of individuals and physicans who sell and buy narcotic perscription drugs?
    Are other physicans who accept insurance “paying the price” for these physicans who have found a way through the “red tape” which will affect stantads of care if it continues?

    Come across one who does u dirty? Make him/her use their liability insurance!

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