Implications of the New Ethics – The Transcendent Importance of Retainer Medicine

DrRich | February 10th, 2010 - 10:49 am

In his past few posts, DrRich has offered a substantive criticism of the new code of medical ethics which has now been formally adopted by over 120 physicians’ organizations across the globe. (See here, here and here.) Fundamentally, the New Ethics abrogates the physician’s classic obligation to always place the welfare of their individual patients first, by adding to it a new and competing ethical obligation (called Social Justice), which requires doctors to work toward “the fair distribution of healthcare resources.”

The New Ethics was explicitly born of the frustration felt by physicians as a result of the multitude of coercions the payers have thought up to force them to place the needs of the payers (the proxy for “society”), ahead of the needs of their patients. Thanks to the New Ethics, doctors can now bend to this coercion without violating their ethical standards.

Coercion by the payers was, of course, quite effective even before the New Ethics made capitulation ethical. This is because the third party payers – both private insurers and the government – have long had a stranglehold on the individual physician’s professional viability. Nonetheless, the fact that the New Ethics now formally divides the physician’s ethical obligations between their patients and society has very practical implications. By eliminating the remaining (relatively low) hurdle of ethical nicety, the New Ethics clears the way for even more sophisticated, more “official,” and more enforceable methods for achieving bedside rationing. (We have even seen the phenomenon, DrRich submits, of professional organizations going along with – and even assisting with – the development and implementation of such methodologies.)

As DrRich has described before, it is the primary care physicians who, so far, have borne the brunt of payers’ efforts to force bedside healthcare rationing. And to the very great credit of PCPs, despite the New Ethics aimed specifically at “curing” their sense of guilt and frustration, a majority of them remain very disturbed by the increasing pressure to make the needs of their patients their secondary concern.

Indeed, if anything, their frustration has grown. In the past, when they were torn between laying out an expensive but likely beneficial medical option for a patient, and not offering it because doing so would anger (say) the government, they could at least rely on classic medical ethics to back them up if they chose the less expedient path. Today, they have ethics as well as expediency pushing them, in such a case, to remain silent about that more expensive option.

To many PCPs with a strong sense of obligation to their patients, the coercive nature of the payers, combined with new ethical standards that virtually obligate them to give in to the coercion, have made modern primary care medicine a nearly untenable proposition.

Thus has the New Ethics rendered the practice of retainer medicine a matter of transcendent importance.

DrRich here uses the term “retainer medicine” as shorthand for any practice arrangement in which the doctor is paid directly by the patient, and not by third party payers. In some of these arrangements, patients actually do pay their physician a retainer fee of a few hundred to several thousand dollars a year. Such formal retainer arrangements – often called “boutique” or “concierge” practices – first began to pop up a decade or so ago. More recently, practices have begun appearing in which there is no actual retainer fee, but instead, patients pay their doctors the same way they pay their plumbers – on a fixed payment schedule according to the time the doctor spends with them. These pay-as-you-go practices generally are inexpensive enough to be affordable to any family that can afford cable television, or cell phone service.

Many retainer practices also provide amenities you often don’t get when your doctor is paid by Medicare or an insurer, including access to the physician’s cell phone, e-mail correspondence, same-day appointments, and plenty of face time during appointments. But whatever the specifics of a particular practice may be, the key that defines “retainer medicine” (as DrRich is using the term here) is that the doctor works for the patient, and nobody else.

Retainer medicine has been under steady attack, from the moment it first appeared, as being elitist, unethical, and divisive. The argument goes: While retainer medicine may be good for individual selfish doctors, and individual wealthy patients, this style of practice threatens to do much harm to the greater good. Critics maintain that retainer medicine threatens to create a two-tiered healthcare system (one for the wealthy and one for the poor). Plus, they say, if any substantial number of physicians were to adopt this odious new style of practice, there wouldn’t be enough PCPs to go around. Many critics have even called for making retainer practices illegal, and some states have already taken action to do so. The rationale for banning retainer medicine, boiled down, is: It is bad for doctors, patients and the public good.

To DrRich, the vociferous objections being raised against retainer medicine strongly suggest something deeper. DrRich believes that critics would simply find it far too “inconvenient” to have a bunch of wild retainer practitioners running around, disclosing to patients ALL their healthcare options, when the more well-behaved doctors are disclosing to patients only the healthcare options approved by government-assembled panels of experts. Retainer practitioners, in other words, will make covert rationing much more difficult. However, this is not a point of view which critics have been willing to express publicly, so DrRich will let it lay.

But even the publicly-expressed objections to retainer medicine – the notion that it is bad for doctors, patients, and the public good – are wrongheaded. Indeed, thanks particularly to the New Ethics, the opposite is true. Retainer medicine is perhaps the only pathway toward rescuing patients and the medical profession – and thus for best serving the public good. For PCPs to continue practicing under what has become the “traditional,” third-party-payment system is, in fact, the far greater threat.

It has become impossible – both in practical terms and now, in ethical terms – for “traditional” PCPs to fight the pervasive pressures being visited upon them to ration healthcare at the bedside. To escape this fate, they must either become specialists, deep-sea fishermen – or a retainer practitioner. That is, PCPs must choose between remaining in a system that ruthlessly pushes them toward a practice of bedside rationing (which many find an unethical, demeaning, and harmful style of practice), or, one way or another, getting out of traditional primary care medicine altogether.

To argue that retainer medicine is unethical is completely backwards. Retainer medicine restores the professional integrity of medical practice, and re-establishes a doctor-patient relationship in which the physician can again assume the duty of a true advocate. It is perhaps the only remaining means to restore the foundational (but now officially obsolete) medical ethic of always placing the patient first.

To argue that retainer medicine somehow threatens patients completely ignores reality. Retainer medicine may be the only remaining viable pathway toward restoring protections that patients are supposed to have when facing a healthcare system that is utterly bent on avoiding spending money on them.

To argue that retainer 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, and in which physicians already cannot afford to care for patients on Medicaid (or increasingly, on Medicare), because they lose money each time such a patient walks in the door.

To argue that retainer 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. Rather, 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.

Finally, we should recognize 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 a minority of 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 and by most experts. 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 retainer-style medicine plays the personal computer to the traditional healthcare system’s mainframe. But it is inarguable that what retainer medicine 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.

There never has been anything even slightly unethical about retainer medicine. The arrangement by which patients pay their doctors directly was, after all, how Marcus Welby practiced medicine, and how nearly every PCP practiced until the 1970s.

The problem began when third party payers were interposed between doctors and their patients, and it became progressively more difficult for doctors to honor their primary ethical obligations. The New Ethics has escalated the problem, however, from one where basic ethical precepts were merely being violated, to one where the precepts themselves were abandoned.

And by so doing, the New Ethics has elevated retainer medicine from something that was merely an ethically justifiable curiosity, to the last refuge for classic medical ethics, and the last best hope for patients, the profession of medicine, and the doctor-patient relationship.

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