The Miserable Doctor Visit Experience by Laurence J. Sloss, M.D.

On January 8, the Sunday Boston Globe magazine carried a piece by Andy Levinsky, a suffering fellow mortal and son of a physician who nonetheless received a full measure of abuse at the hands of modern medicine. His lament is titled “Doctors, your patients’ time matters too

There is so much that is right, or should be right, about this article. The author speaks from personal experience, is old enough to have memories of better days, and grew up in a medical family so he knows something of both sides. There is a comment from a Harvard Medical School professor, and a nod to some statistics; there is pathos and there is benumbed capitulation. He could have thrown in the 54% physician burnout rate reported by the AMA, the high medical student and physician suicide rate, the seven-figure salaries drawn by senior management in nonprofit hospitals and insurance companies, the ever-increasing insurance premiums that accompany the ever-decreasing level of service they purchase, and the fact that the only reasons that our healthcare system works at all well is that there are a lot of people who work very hard despite the absence of system incentives to do so, and that the rate of advance of medical science is still outpacing the rate of deterioration of the human and humane service components. To that we could also add the utter failure of all attempts to fix the situation, including empowering insurance companies to set rates of payment, emplacement of enormous regulatory bureaucracies and their reporting requirements, imposition of electronic medical records, the rapidly rising fraction of physicians who are salaried, and the lumping of all direct health service professionals under the title “Provider.”

As is the case with most such writing, including this article, there is a fundamental misperception of cause and effect and an unsubstantiated hope of some improvement and remediation. It appears to be a given that the fee-for-service system is what is driving rising costs and deterioration in service, and that an alternative payment system based on “value” will be the remedy. The problem with this analysis is that it is based on ignorance of the driving forces behind the current situation and assumptions that are contrary to fundamental human behavior and the operation of markets.

Human beings are strongly influenced by incentives and are wired to recognize them and respond appropriately. We are also very good at ranking incentives and preferring options that yield high reward per unit of effort, and we quickly recognize the behaviors that maximize reward. If those incentives are perverse, they will result in perverse behaviors on the part of the large majority of individuals, whether petty government officials or physicians. If the physician is employed by a system that is driven by economic imperatives (such as greed,) he will be strongly incentivized to maximize his economic productivity, regardless of any adverse effects on his nominal primary professional responsibilities. With a fixed rate of payment per unit of service, this means running volume of patients and ordering the maximum number of remunerative tests. The actual quality of the service rendered to the patient and the patient’s perception of the value he has received are utterly irrelevant to the incentive system, and the patient is completely disempowered in terms of adjusting the physician’s or system’s remuneration for those services. The actual payment is rendered automatically upon receipt of electronically generated billing codes, increasingly generated by clicking boxes in the electronic medical record with its built-in reminders to code to the max. The patient copayment is trivial, and almost no one refuses to pay it anyway, no matter how shabbily they have been treated.

So, one might ask, “why not go to a value-based system?” The problem here is the definition of “value” and the development of criteria for determining value, metrics for measuring value, and tweaks to the payment system to see to it that remuneration is properly aligned with value. I defy you to find any of the proposals for “value-based” systems that includes the individual patient outcome and perception of the value of the care received. All of the metrics are related to aggregated data, whereas medicine is practiced upon individuals. All metrics are easily fudged, and there is plenty of software out there already in place to see that it is done by the book. Recent experiences with two of these attempts to reward “value” have nicely pointed up the impact of perverse incentives. Hospitals were rated on their readmission rates, and penalized if they ranked high on this metric. Readmission rates promptly fell, but the number of patients bouncing back to the hospital still sick did not. To fudge the readmission rate data, such patients were “admitted to observation status” and logged as outpatients. A win for the hospital? The other concurrent perverse incentive was to minimize length of stay in the hospital. Sending patients home earlier not surprisingly resulted in more readmissions (no problem, they were admitted to observation.)

There was another adverse outcome, however, that was more difficult to fudge: post-hospitalization mortality also went up. What looked good for the hospital did not look so good for their customers, who presumably would have preferred to survive rather than to make pretty metrics.

I must now admit that I have no good idea about how to fix the hospital component of the healthcare system. There is so much waste and inefficiency, diversion of resources to management, PR and grandiose construction projects, and complex, indecipherable contractual pushing, shoving and boondogglery that a rational mind is left adrift. Add to this the wholesale reduction of the professional staff and trainees to interchangeable depersonalized widgets that can be swapped in and out of various niches and teams in a manner that destroys continuity of care and leaves every patient faced with a new troupe of strangers several times a week and cut loose from their long-term and trusted caregivers.

On the outpatient and office side, however, there could be a relatively simple path or paths to improvement. Foremost would be the empowerment of the patient as an equal partner in the transaction with the physician. This can be accomplished only by removing the third-party payment system from the equation. In the office setting, the insurance model is largely inappropriate, just as automobile insurance has no role in automobile purchase, routine repairs and maintenance, gas, oil and antifreeze. This is particularly true since medical “insurance” is not real insurance at all but an obligate first-dollar, third-party payment system that exacts a mandated 12.5% tax on every premium dollar (in Massachusetts, insurance companies are required to spend 87.5% of premium income on clinical services, and get a no-questions-asked 12.5% retention off the top, plus whatever else they can finagle by stretching the definition of services.) In return for being the principal payor for office visits, the patient will be empowered to demand a level of service commensurate with what he pays; likewise, the physician will be able to price his time and effort according to his perceived and publicly accessible qualifications and the time and effort he expands on the patient’s behalf. There is room here for negotiation and for governmental or other subsidies to support patients with limited means, and for prepaid annual practice memberships or other arrangements mutually satisfactory for physician and patient and free from the present proscriptions of such activities by rigid insurance contracting, including by Medicare. The physician who serves his patients well and the patient who is willing to pay fair market value will both prosper in such a system. The impersonal rat race doctor who is really working for the Man and not for the patient will deservedly fade away and not be mourned.

Douglas Farrago MD

Douglas Farrago MD is a full-time practicing family doc in Forest, Va. He started Forest Direct Primary Care where he takes no insurance and bills patients a monthly fee. He is board certified in the specialty of Family Practice. He is the inventor of a product called the Knee Saver which is currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Knee Saver and its knock-offs are worn by many major league baseball catchers. He is also the inventor of the CryoHelmet used by athletes for head injuries as well as migraine sufferers. Dr. Farrago is the author of four books, two of which are the top two most popular DPC books. From 2001 – 2011, Dr. Farrago was the editor and creator of the Placebo Journal which ran for 10 full years. Described as the Mad Magazine for doctors, he and the Placebo Journal were featured in the Washington Post, US News and World Report, the AP, and the NY Times. Dr. Farrago is also the editor of the blog Authentic Medicine which was born out of concern about where the direction of healthcare is heading and the belief that the wrong people are in charge. This blog has been going daily for more than 15 years Article about Dr. Farrago in Doximity Email Dr. Farrago – [email protected] 

  7 comments for “The Miserable Doctor Visit Experience by Laurence J. Sloss, M.D.

  1. dwa
    February 6, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    Links to references regarding post hospitalization mortality and readmission under observations status data you discuss? Not saying I would be surprised but would like to see the data / study.

    • LJSlossMD
      February 9, 2017 at 10:32 am

      Frankly, my observations about mortality versus length of stay were not drawn from any specific literature, but rather from a combination of personal observation, commentary and online discussions. I do not think that out of hospital post-discharge mortality is tracked at all well, and there is really no published literature relevant to length of stay and out of hospital mortality in the United States that comes up on a simple search. I think that the same goes for length of stay versus readmission to observation status. I did find one very large-scale European study that is directly relevant, feasible because of their centralized healthcare system and extensive tracking of both short and long-term outcomes. I believe that this study is fundamentally concordant with two of my premises: that short stays result in worse overall outcomes, and that hospital-supplied statistics are biased to make the institution look good. The reference for this study is:

      Good luck to us for getting anything similar done in the USA. Our approach is to generate a policy and to reward making that policy appear to be a good one by strongly incentivizing the reporting of positive results.

  2. Pat
    February 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    Dr. Sloss, it is your reason and experience vs the emotions of the lay public, and I am not optimistic about the outcome. Your case is nonetheless very persuasive.

  3. Chad Savage
    February 6, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Fantastic commentary!

  4. drhockey
    February 6, 2017 at 9:14 am

    Also, this:

    AMA Holds Funeral Service for Physical Exam

  5. Seneca
    February 6, 2017 at 8:09 am

    Outstanding. This is the best synopsis of the idiocracy that has become US medicine that I have seen in a long time.

  6. Jay Cooperman
    February 6, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Nice article. It is beyond question that the inclusion of primary care office services in insurance reimbursement has had devastating effects on the ability of internists and family physicians to fulfill their roles in prevention and early detection of disease. Primary care physicians don’t have the time or energy to treat patients comprehensively, much less educate themselves and their patients about the importance of plant based nutrition in promoting healthy aging. This has cost our health care system trillions of dollars, and the focus on “quality metrics” posed to solve the problem, which continues to disempower physicians and patients, will fail. Direct primary care is the only answer that makes sense to me. Hopefully we are not beyond the tipping point. The number of doctors choosing primary care specialties is insufficient to address the needs of our citizens, with no remedy in sight.

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