Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Philadelphia Medicine
The first hospital, the first medical school, the first medical society, and abundant Civil War casualties, all combined to establish the most important medical center in the country. It's still the second largest industry in the city.

Philadelphia Physicians
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Some Philadelphia physicians are contributors to current national debates on the financing of medical care.

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Clinton Plan Summary: Physician Effects

Medicare HMO

The Clinton Plan of 1993 was of course a failure, never happened. But it was intended to create a universal system of managed care (ie HMO) unifying the government programs with employer-paid ones. When business groups ultimately decided they would lose too much control with a federal bed-partner, they made their excuses and walked out. But they then promptly set about installing HMOs in their employee health programs, herding their hapless employees into them. In consequence, conversion from the old model of health delivery was never complete, since it was unpopular, fell short of its cost-containment goals, and is therefore now receding. In fact, there are signs that a chastened business leadership intends to abandon the project as unsuccessful, or at least now seeks new directions to take things. However, there were appreciable effects on physician behavior that will probably be lasting ones.

Overhead costs for physicians have been rising for fifty years. My own first experience with private practice was in 1950, as a locum tenens just two blocks from where I still live as a commuter. There was no secretary, no nurse, no billing clerk, no appointments. This lack of amenity may now seem shocking, but it made it possible to practice with essentially no overhead costs at all. Essentially all gross revenue became net revenue. I can remember opening the door from my breakfast table, and there in the waiting room would be two or three patients reading old magazines. They were seen, each in turn until no one replaced them, and then the lights were turned out. As the patients concluded their business and left, thanking me, ninety percent of them pressed two crumpled dollar bills into my hand; a handful expected to get bills at the end of the month if I remembered to jot down their names. Some time each day I had to walk down the street to the local bank and unload the wad of dollar bills from my pocket. Since the office was open both Saturday and Sunday mornings for a few hours, the wad on Monday was sort of a nuisance. But it was fun to walk past the barbershop and have the barber wave his scissors at me, fun to have patients swerve their cars to the curb to chat a little as I walked along. The corner druggist was, perhaps, a little excessive in his cordiality.

In later years, when my office was in the center of Philadelphia, a patient who was an Internal Revenue agent told me that the IRS hated cash transactions because of the opportunity to avoid taxes. Colleagues have told me of the FBI parking a car outside a physician office, counting the number of patients who entered and left; months later, they would come back and demand to see the accounting records for that particular sample day. In fact, an FBI agent said every rookie agent would be assigned to similar activities in nearby retail and restaurant districts; presumably, the system of visitor-counting was perfected in that environment. There is now little doubt in my mind that the IRS kept up a steady arrange on other agencies to encourage systems and rules that might force all mom-and-pop businesses to keep verifiable financial records. There's a lot of reason to believe the underground economy is a significant drain on tax revenues, hence results in higher taxes for those who do pay. By the same reasoning, increased accounting overhead costs also result in higher prices to the public, but the multiple steps in the third-party payor system tend to obscure it, and readily enable compliance costs to exceed the underlying tax avoidance. A general extension of the IRS mindset has come to mean that more than half of all physician revenue is now consumed by overhead; tax avoidance of the most mendacious sort could not approach that much. Some overhead cost is due to rising malpractice insurance premiums, but the largest part is devoted to appointment systems, billing systems, medical records systems. I notice my own dermatologist spends five minutes per patient, has six employees working at paperwork, and though I know he is an affable man discourages chit-chat even with a medical colleague. A naturally genial person has thus been turned into a drudge, so overwhelmed by overhead that taking a vacation is a daunting expense for him. He can vacation any time he pleases, but six salaries continue while revenue stops. No doubt the IRS is pleased to be able to report near-perfect tax compliance, much better in their eyes than the old loosey-goosey days of 1950. The compliance costs to society of imposing this towering administrative system must in fact be many times the cost of just ignoring it. From the surveillance point of view, physician response to new data requirements must be particularly frustrating, since the almost invariable physician response to a new requirement is to ignore it totally. In time, the requirement is either withdrawn or renewed with some egregious penalty for non-compliance. And so we go with the bureaucratic war, with the bureaucrats imagining that they are slowly winning. Perhaps they are, considering the widening disparity between physician income and administrative salaries with benefits. But the taxpayers are certainly losing.

In 1950, I would not have guessed that a significant result of increased physician workload would be overspecialization. But that's the case, and the consequences to cost and quality of medical care are subtle but profound. An unrelenting demand on physician time is the need to keep up with the rapidly advancing scientific frontier. The half-life of medical information is said to be seven years; that is, half the drugs prescribed today were unknown seven years ago. You can go a week, a month or even a year without reading or attending a seminar, but if you go seven years you are half gone, down the professional drain, and may never have the time and energy to recover. Somewhere or other, five or ten hours a week must be found for professional enhancement. Adding that to a minimum of sixty hours of work, the inroads into personal life start to become burdensome; a young physician with a hundred thousand dollars of educational debt must feel frenzied indeed. And so everybody seeks to specialize in order to narrow information demands. That's taking a chance, of course; a specialist like a urologist could see his whole specialty disappear with the discovery of a single new pill. Since at the moment, it is easier to define the cost and value of a surgical procedure, procedural specialties are reimbursed more generously than cognitive medical ones, and seemingly always will be. The net effect of all this is a lot of people can't find a family doctor. You can find a colonoscopist or even a back surgeon, but you can't find a family doctor because they are paid less but must keep abreast of the whole range of medical advances. Generalists are tip-toeing out the door. The same thing happened in England, where the cognitive specialties disproportionately moved to Canada and New Zealand. The empty places in England were then filled with doctors from Pakistan, with social discord that is only now beginning to suggest itself.

In America, the flight of the brightest males from medical school to investment banking takes the form of increasing proportions of medical students who are female, since the girls with fewer occupational choices are generally smarter than the boys. Since my wife and daughter are both physicians, I am not in a position to complain about this trend, although women physicians clearly prefer certain specialties with limited work hours, and women retire younger than men do. But there is one aspect where this army of women physicians will eventually serve us well. In recent years, a nursing shortage has emboldened a sort of union-like behavior among urban hospital nurses. Watching physicians go about their work, and particularly when they watch physicians make mistakes, nurses (like medical students, by the way) develop the idea that they could do better. Add a little feminism to the mixture, and you get some hot soup. But the growing ranks of female physicians are going to stand for none of the feminist implication. I first got this idea at the hospital watching my aunt, who had been a nurse before she became a physician. I have sometimes wished my aunt had been beside me at that party at the AMA, at the door of the Pennsylvania Delegation reception, imagining her brisk and dismissive retort.

Originally published: Wednesday, August 01, 2007; most-recently modified: Sunday, July 21, 2019

Locum Tenens is still an important and valuable staffing solution to this day. I found your Locum Tenens experience to be quite entertaining.
Posted by: Brandon   |   Sep 29, 2010 10:36 PM

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