Monday, September 7, 2015
Happy Labor Day IV
This is my fourtth Labor Day writing this blog and it is my custom to summarize the work environment for physicians like I did in Happy Labor Day I, II, and III. Things have not improved very much and there was a timely piece by an anonymous physician filed on another blog entitled Confessions of a Burnt Out Physician. That post is full of anecdotes about physicians being managed like production workers and to the point of not even having an adequate work space to conduct work that requires focus and confidentiality. Another key element of managing physicians is to make sure that their days and nights are filled with the modern equivalent of paperwork - e-mails and charting that is read by nobody except the occasional coding and billing staff. If that is not demoralizing enough, there are always the suggestions that physicians are not doing enough, even though they are easily in the hospital for 4 or 5 hours after all of the business people are long gone. This can all be handled masterfully. As an example, the RVU productivity system was in many cases introduced to physicians as a system of "fairness". That is - the idea that everyone has to pull their own weight. That works very well in any environment of competitive physicians. It was dovetailed in nicely with multimillion dollar lawsuits by the Department of Justice that were based on charting. Now physicians could be fined or imprisoned if their documentation was not up to snuff. And of course the Department of Justice wanted every physician in this country to know that any discussion of fees was a potential antitrust offense. When all of that business rhetoric had settled out, the only things that really changed was how easily physicians could be manipulated and overworked while their professionalism was completely ignored. Apparently none of us knew how to work or act before managed care came along.
There have been some additional business innovations in the last year to make physician's lives even more difficult. I read another blog recently where the topic of physician managers affiliated with Big Pharma were desired to bring money into departments and how that and key opinion leaders (KOLs) from that field was a key corrupting influence in medicine and psychiatry. That influence is trivial compared with the business influences on medicine and their adverse effects. Excellent clinicians, teachers and researchers now need to get an MBA before they are considered as a department head. A managerial class that is progressively less competent to manage may be an acceptable business standard but it seems like an extravagance in medicine and one that has cost us hundreds billions of dollars and untold unnecessary work for physicians.
Furthermore, we know what works in terms of physician management. I worked in tens of departments where the department head was a physician who was in that position because of skills pertaining to clinical care, teaching and research. That doesn't mean that they were necessarily easy to get along with, but in teaching institutions their skill set was on display every day. That model transitioned to one where a physician and an administrator of some type both co-lead the department. The physician leader was still affiliated with physicians in the field at that point and could feel their pain. The next step was removing any physician with those alliances from an administrative position. In many cases, this meant people who had no hesitation to manipulate physicians either by a "It's my way of the highway" attitude, making the environment so hostile that they forced selected dissenting physicians to quit, or after pretending that the physicians had some input (usually through endless mind-numbing meetings about the business) simply telling them that no matter what their opinion was - this was what would be happening. Throughout the process there was an endless stream of "Change is good", "Cost effectiveness", and "Managed care friendly" propaganda. But it didn't stop there. Managed care run institutions have an entire cadre of case managers whose primary job is to "manage" physicians and make sure they are discharging people according to the companies proprietary standards. If there are any disagreements that low level administrator can easily go up the change of command to get decisions in their favor or identify physicians who are not in lock step with the company. Everywhere within these organizations there are rules about identifying "disruptive physicians" and penalizing them. I am not talking about doctors throwing scalpels across the operating room. The threshold can be so low these days that a "disruptive physician" is anyone who gets into it with an administrator for any reason, including legitimate disagreements.
The effect on the psychological environment of physicians has been corrosive. Within a generation we have gone from a training environment where medical students and residents could identify with senior physicians who embodied professionalism and an intellectual approach to medicine to managed care employees who use a business approach. Instead of rounding on patients and learning the importance of medicine as a life-long intellectual pursuit, trainees are focused on the business manager's pursuit of getting patients out of the hospital so that corporate America can keep making money by easily beating the fixed reimbursement scheme set up by the government. The business rationalization has always been "of course we need to make money to keep the doors open", but that never addresses the trade-offs. In this case the trade-off is no relationship or plan to assist the patient. In the case of patients with psychiatric disorders, there are inadequate inpatient and outpatient services, both due to business rationing to maintain profits in a rationed and cost-shifted world. In many cases health care systems have carried these plans to their absurd conclusion - just close any inpatient beds, close the outpatient clinics, and hope that some taxpayer funded clinic or jail can pick up the slack. The typical health care manager has an endless stream of bad ideas.
Are there any bright lights on the horizon? I think that there are. I would count the movements against the medical specialty boards and the proposed maintenance of certification (MOC) programs. It is very positive that physicians are standing up and saying that they are unnecessary, not evidence based, and a tremendous waste of time, money, and resources. More importantly all of that stress falls squarely on overworked physicians. There is now at least one parallel certification organization that depends primarily on initial board certification and then continuing medical education courses - the historical standard. It will take a significant commitment, especially from younger physicians to keep this movement alive because it is just a matter of time before credentialing committees for clinics and hospitals will be putting the squeeze on their physicians to use the labor intensive MOC programs. There is also the question of medical boards. Will they require MOC for maintenance of licensure (MOL)? Only time will tell, but like all things American - the bet is on the oligarchs and that currently is everyone making a lot of money out of managing physicians. At some level that includes professional organizations populated by members who are very friendly to the business world. If anyone doubts the benefits to professional organizations, just visit the American Psychiatric Associations Learning Center and the MOC offerings. If the monopoly can be broken, it suggests that physicians may have the ability to counter the business and government strategies that keep what is basically an anti-physician system afloat. Business strategies have nothing to do with the practice of medicine.
Another bright light that I neglected to comment on initially is the young psychiatrists going into private practice. At first I was reluctant to endorse this idea, primarily because it contrasts so starkly with my experience in community psychiatry, acute care psychiatry, and general hospital psychiatry. I was concerned that there would not be enough psychiatric expertise to care for very ill people. But in conversations with many young colleagues they are some of the brightest, happiest, and enthusiastic physicians that I have seen. The reason I am given by these docs is that they decide who they are going to see and what their schedule is and not some administrator. They decide what their clinic policies are and not some administrator. Some of them have worked in managed care settings and had the courage to walk away after the standard "performance evaluation", especially when it had become an exercise in a loyalty oath to the company and trying to dredge up anonymous critical remarks from coworkers. My opinion on this private practice trend is that it is a good one. Any person consulting these folks is going to get recommendations based on quality psychiatric care and not proprietary managed care guidelines. They will also be talking with a psychiatrist who has not seen ten other people before them and one who has the energy to focus on their problems and possible solutions. Some of these private physicians also spend days in community mental health centers and on community support teams - treating patients with severe problems.
So my fourth Labor Day message is slightly brighter than the last three, but not much. I have to say that there are a few of us around yet who know exactly what happened and what is possible - and I feel your pain. If you feel up to it post your anonymous story here.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA