Monday, September 2, 2019

Happy Labor Day 2019

I decided to keep posting a Labor Day greeting to my fellow physicians. I’ve been doing this since 2013 and previously linked to all of those pages. Now there is a search feature in the upper right corner of this blog and you can just search on Labor Day if you are interested. My post this year is truncated based on the fact that very little has changed since my fairly comprehensive post 2018. If you will look up that post I comment on physician productivity, the EHR, pharmaceutical benefit managers, managed care and health insurance companies, maintenance of certification, and burnout in some detail. The advances in these areas have been too trivial to comment on in terms of either progress or the chronic lack of progress. I am sure that some organizations would like to debate that. The APA for example would point out that a health insurance company was successfully sued for failing to reimburse care for mental illness. The judge in that case actually made some fairly critical remarks directed at the managed care company, but on a day-to-day basis the average psychiatrist and the patients they are treating notice nothing but continued oppression.

Psychiatrists and their patients traditionally have fewer resources than other physicians and standard medical and surgical care. The overwhelming signs of this include jails being used as psychiatric holding tanks (I refuse to consider them hospitals) and the ongoing bed shortage. That bed shortage leads to overcrowding in emergency departments and a tendency for patients with mental illness to be the only ones discharged untreated from emergency departments. That often happens after they’ve been held there without treatment for days at a time.

There is something basically wrong with a government and political system that refuses to provide humane and equitable care for people with mental illnesses on the one hand and blames them for societal problems on the other. Just earlier today in the context of yet another mass shooting I heard the President describe the perpetrator as being “very mentally ill”. This occurred after a recent visit to the White House by a National Rifle Association representative. During that visit the president was talked out of advocating for universal background checks and the party line became “blame the mentally ill for mass shootings”.  It appears that the executive branch has a red line that they won’t cross when it comes to rational gun policy and a second red line that they won’t cross when it comes to providing equitable treatment for people with mental illness and addictions.

I think that is a relevant Labor Day observation for physicians because these irrational policies affect all of us. As psychiatrists we see very mentally ill people go in and out of hospitals and administrators pressure us to get them out before they are stable.  They are typically discharged to minimal outpatient services. We experience the tension of trying to get people off of inpatient medical and surgical units or out of the emergency department to appropriate psychiatric settings when there are none. Our physician colleagues feel that pressure. We all recognize that we were not taught to treat people this way in medical school. The only reason we do is that physicians no longer control the practice of medicine. Business administrators and people with no medical qualifications do control the practice of medicine. I repost the graphic here that was sent to me by David Himmelstein, MD who also gave me permission to use it on this blog.  Just getting rid of all of that bad management would result in saving a trillion dollars and bringing US health care costs in line with the country with the second highest per capita costs - Switzerland. 

It is clear to me that the problem with the physician work environment - the place we all labor intensely for too many hours - is a problem with administrators. Never before in the history of medicine have we had so many administrators telling us what to do. The graphic clearly illustrates that.  As working physicians we all know what that means.  We know it means when an administrator suddenly has a “great” idea that is not based on science or medicine and we all have to live with it for months or years. We all know what it means when a group of administrators suggests that we are not getting patients out of the hospital fast enough even when they are still ill.  We know what it means when we have a lengthy meeting with administrators for our “input” only to learn that they didn’t really want our input they just wanted to tell us how things were going to be for the rest of our career. And if you are as old as me, you might recall a time when medical departments were run by physicians and they had business managers who took care of business. In those days there were clear boundaries between medicine and business - not like it is today.  We are well past that point now.  The practice environment is a boundaryless morass of business people telling physicians, pharmacists, and patients what to do.  The rationale for this morass (cost containment) is no longer visible - probably becuase this model has failed miserably. Instead there are massive costs and a massive transfer of those direct costs to patients and indirect costs to physicians.

It has also resulted in the lowest possible quality of care.  The quality of medical care and how that is measured became a secondary consideration when businesses took over medicine.  A clear example is the treatment of depression on an outpatient basis. One of the standards promoted by the managed care industry is measurement based care using a scale like the PHQ-9 for ongoing assessment.  Unfortunately this process lends itself to using the measurement as a diagnosis and rapid route to treatment with antidepressants. Several approaches to depression including subsyndromal depression in primary care settings are ignored and PHQ-9 scores are followed as a measure of quality improvement.  This is the type of gross oversimplification that occurs when clinical medicine (1) is ignored in the context of businesses claiming that their measurement process is superior.

These inefficiencies in the day-to-day work of physicians are presented as improvements that we should all be happy to go along with.  In many cases administrative catch phrases like: "Change is good" accompany the poorly thought out and unscientifically implemented policies. The practice environment for physicians will only improve if the  bean counters no longer run medicine.

Until then Labor Day will be just that.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1: Arroll B, Chin WY, Moir F, Dowrick C. An evidence-based first consultation for depression: nine key messages. Br J Gen Pract. 2018 Apr;68(669):200-201. doi: 10.3399/bjgp18X695681. PubMed PMID: 29592945

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