The Rise of the Corporate Physician - the End of the (Health Care) World As We Know It?

In discussing how concentration and abuse of power threatens health care professionals' values and professionalism, we have discussed how ostensibly academic institutions value faculty more for their earning power than their academic abilities.  We have discussed how financial relationships between physicians and drug, biotechnology, device and other companies risk abuse of entrusted power.  But up to now, I have been comforted by the hope that physicians in small independent practices who do not have such conflicts of interest are trying to uphold their professional values, even as they were buffeted by the perverse incentives imposed by managed care organizations/ health insurance companies and government insurance (e.g., US Medicare whose payments are controlled by the RUC).

However, a recent article in SmartMoney suggests that the end of the independent physician is nigh:

Remember the solo family doctor? In places like Springfield, it has become increasingly likely that she's collecting a paycheck from a large regional hospital—and practicing medicine according to the hospital's strict playbook. The experience in Springfield is just a needle prick compared with what's going on nationwide. At least one in six doctors—more than 150,000 nationwide—now works as an employee of a hospital system. And with about half of recent medical school graduates deciding to work for hospitals and many established doctors looking to unload their practices amid the tough economic climate, what was a trickle of change has turned into a torrent. Jim Pizzo, a Chicago-area hospital consultant, says the blistering pace of these mergers is leading some colleagues to joke that there are two types of physicians today: 'Those employed by hospitals and those about to be.'

So we are seeing physicians who practiced solo or in physician-lead, physician-run group practices becoming employees of large health care organizations. And here on Health Care Renewal, we know how most large health care organizations are run.

This appears to be an unintended consequence of our recent US health care "reform" law:

But hospital executives also believe that buying doctors' practices could yield a big payday, thanks to a different provision in the health care law. The law will encourage doctors and hospitals to share some payments when treating each patient; as collaborative teams, they could earn bonuses for holding down costs and meeting quality markers. 'The real question for everyone is how that pie—that money—is going to get split up,' Goertz says; hospitals think they'll have the upper hand if they employ the doctors that they're sharing their banana crème with. And that's touched off a flurry of mergers everywhere—from Seattle to Roanoke, Va.

The name of these supposedly collaborative organizations, which are turning out to simply be hospital systems which have purchased physicians' practices and now employ physicians, is "accountable care organizations," which now appears ironic at least.

The article detailed some of the adverse effects to be expected when accountable care organizations become hospital systems with employed physicians providing patient care.

Increased Costs with Decreased Care

Ruth Taylor, a 44-year-old woman in Bozeman, Mont., started seeing Robert Hathaway as her doctor during college, and she stuck with him through everything from routine blood tests to a kidney transplant. Taylor, a professional nurse with warm blue eyes, describes Hathaway as a 'classic small-town doctor' who knew all his patients by name and socialized with them at local basketball games; he was accessible and thorough—even catching a health problem of hers that other doctors had missed. But after Hathaway sold his practice to the local hospital, Taylor says, things began to sour. She was more likely to be assigned to see the physician assistant rather than Hathaway himself. And when she went in for a comprehensive physical (also run by the assistant) in late 2008, she was charged $360, more than double what she'd paid for a workup in previous years.

Imposition of Dysfunctional Health Care Information Technology

On this blog, Dr Scot Silverstein frequently posts about how poorly designed and implemented commercial health care information technology may have harms that outweigh any benefits, and how these systems are rarely objectively evaluated. Employed physicians are likely to be required by their new executive overlords to use commercial health care IT that benefits the managers and their strategies, but may not benefit patient care:

Last spring Hospital Sisters tried to shift all of its Springfield medical offices to electronic medical records simultaneously. But there wasn't enough tech support to deal with all the problems physicians ran into on day one, and wait times spiked at the system's walk-in locations. Nenaber, a soft-spoken 64-year-old with wire-rim glasses, sounds acquiescent about the situation. 'We're getting the hang of these things,' he says slowly, sitting at his desk overlooking a gas station and a strip-mall parking lot. But his practice is still waiting for its electronic payoff

Increasing Prices by Providing Care in the Hospital

Now that the acquisition spree is in full swing, some experts worry that price increases could become the dominant narrative for patients. When hospitals run medical practices, federal law allows them to add substantial 'facility fees' to patients' bills to cover overhead expenses. The new bosses also often rip equipment like X-ray machines and MRIs out of the physician's office, preferring to have patients get those tests from radiologists at the hospital. That, too, can cost patients. A consumer with a high-deductible Aetna plan, for instance, would pay up to $1,400 for an MRI of her back at the University Medical Center at Princeton, N.J., according to data that the insurer makes available to its members. The same scan would cost about a third as much at nearby Radiology Affiliates of New Jersey, a nonhospital facility. Based on a review of insurance databases and state regulatory records, that's a fairly typical price gap

Increasing Prices by Market Domination

Price increases also have the potential to bleed outward—affecting not only the patients of the absorbed doctor, but also the cost of health care citywide. That's because when hospitals sit down at the bargaining table with insurers, they're almost always able to negotiate higher payment rates for their big groups of doctors than a lone physician with little bargaining power

Despite the usual spin provided by the would-be monopolists:
Fast-growing hospital systems, including Hospital Sisters and Bozeman Deaconess, say that their growth will eventually make care more efficient and bring costs back down, since they'll be able to cut back on unnecessary care and duplicate tests

I am sure that the 19th century robber barons made the same pitch about increasing efficiency. Of course, the efficiency mainly benefits the insider managers.

By the way, of course, the hospital systems own public relations machines and lobbyists are now busy attacking any restrictions on such concentrations of power, while the hospital managers figure out how to game the system to increase their market domination before the regulators notice:

As more patients face such disruptions, regulators are taking notice. In October, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services met with doctors, insurers and other health officials to discuss the referral and pricing problems that could arise from 'accountable-care organizations'— those new groups of hospitals and doctors that will share financial incentives. The Federal Trade Commission will offer guidelines on what's permissible by midyear. But hospitals are already lobbying for accountable-care groups to be exempt from antitrust and antifraud rules, even as they scoop up more and more medical practices. Under current regulations, officials in Washington must green-light all mergers involving companies valued at more than $63 million. But by buying up tiny medical practices one at a time, critics say, hospitals stay below the threshold and avoid getting much attention. And by the time regulators settle on more-formal legal guidelines, those mergers may be hard to undo, says Cory Capps, a Washington economist specializing in health care antitrust issues.

Excess and Unnecessary Utilization via "Leakage Control"

With big hospital systems now owning physician practices, and practicing physicians directly answering to executives, the push will be on to maximize use of the most lucrative services. Once the hospital systems have made employees out of the physicians, it is easy to pressure their own employed physicians to refer patients to the hospital units that can bill most lucratively:
By their own admission, most hospitals are eager to keep patient referrals under the same corporate umbrella, to save on costs and share medical records but also to boost revenue. The hospitals say they wouldn't force an internist, for example, to refer a patient with heart problems to their own cardiologists, but critics say there's certainly financial pressure. Under a little-noticed regulation that took effect in 2007, hospitals are allowed to pay doctors less if they don't do enough internal referrals.

Doctors in Bozeman and Springfield who granted interviews said they didn't feel pressure to be 'team players' with referrals. But some of those who've left large health systems tell a different story, including Mark Callenberger, an orthopedist in Merritt Island, Fla. Callenberger says that the hospital group where he used to work urged him to direct more patients to the MRI machine owned by the hospital. The doctor preferred a more advanced machine at a private practice that he says offered clearer pictures. But after he ignored the recommendations, Callenberger says, the hospital told his office manager to schedule patients at the hospital's MRI anyway, leaving him to perform surgery using 'crummy images.' (The hospital declined to comment on Callenberger's case but says its doctors can use whatever facilities they choose.) Patients may never know about these power struggles, because doctors aren't required to disclose how they choose specialists. And while patients who ask can always see a specialist outside the network, in practice few are likely to challenge their doctors' judgment, says Bruce A. Johnson, a Denver health care lawyer. 'Face it, when we're really sick,' says Johnson, 'if the doctor tells us to jump off a roof, we'll probably consider doing it.'

Note that we discussed (here and here) the example of a for-profit hospital system with a large number of physician employees pushed to choke off "leakage" of patient referrals outside the system.


The overarching problem is that employed physicians now must answer to managers and executives who may put financial goals, and their own enrichment, ahead of physicians' values, and specifically will choose increased revenue over providing the best possible care to individual patients:

. Executives here are also hoping to push the needle further—standardizing everything from how long patients wait on hold to the ease of parking at the doctor's office (valets, luxury-restaurant style, are one solution under consideration).

Still, Mikell acknowledges, 'doctors don't want follow-the-directions, cookbook medicine.' And for many physicians, the idea of following new rules triggers a much larger unease at giving up their independence—a feeling of loss, both for the businesses they built and for their patients. Back in Bozeman, Blair Erb, the sole cardiologist in town, is a picture of resignation as he prepares to sign a contract with Deaconess. 'I feel defeated,' Erb says, looking around at the office furniture he and his wife, Liz, chose from a catalog years ago. The weathered ranchers and bundled-up women that come through his door mostly express disbelief when they hear that this frank-talking Tennessee native will sell his practice. His staffers say they're not looking forward to the questions the hospital's medical records system will soon prompt them to ask patients. (Do you wear a bike helmet regularly? Do you have a smoke detector?) 'We'll try to retain as much professional independence as possible,' Erb says, gazing at the hospital building, whose bulk he can see through his window. 'But the fact of the matter is, we'll have a new master.'

So I for one do not welcome our new executive overlords.

We have posted about numerous examples of health care organizational leaders who put their own enrichment ahead of the mission. Now even ostensibly non-profit hospital systems are increasingly competing against for-profit systems. We have seen, as noted above, an example of a for-profit system that seems to betting everything on a business strategy to reduce "leakage" of patient referrals.  We can expect that non-profit hospital systems will have to act more like for-profit systems, and the perverse financial incentives given the managers of all hospital systems will lead to pressure on physicians to forgo their responsibilities to provide the best care to individual patients in favor of actions that will bring in the most money in the shortest time.

We seem to be witnessing the rise of the corporate physician, the rise of a physician who must first answer to managers who never committed to putting patient care first, who may have no sympathy for physicians' core values, who may receive huge incentives to maximize short-term revenue no matter what. Such a rise of corporate physicians would be unprecedented in the US, and I believe in any developed country.

The rise of the corporate physician would require patients to put their trust in corporations, rather than individual doctors, in the era of the global financial collapse, in the new gilded age.

We may be seeing the end of health care world as we know it. The upcoming brave new world of health care may be worse that we can imagine.

What is to be done? - I rarely have ventured into specific policy suggestions, but I think that the consequences of the well-intended "accountable care organization" blunder may be so severe that I must so venture now. We must derail the movement towards "accountable care organizations." Any movement to make organizations more accountable cannot do so by making most professionals into employees answering to the sorts of ill-informed, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted or even corrupt leaders that we have been writing about for more than six years on Health Care Renewal.  We need to make it impossible for for-profit companies to employ physicians to take care of patients.  Maybe we need to think about making it impossible for for-profit companies to provide patient care at all, and for for-profit companies to sell health insurance.  Meanwhile, we need to ensure the accountability, integrity, transparency, and honesty of leaders of health care organizations.

If we do not reverse the current trends, anyone who wants good health care may have to look for it somewhere other than in the US.