Sunday, August 30, 2015

On interdisciplinary patient care and the corporate takeover of health care

The following is a gues post by Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH

In July 2015, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine, the school invited its alumni for a Saturday morning symposium on "Transformative Medical Education in Hawai`i."  The last panel of the morning, on the future of medical education in Hawaiʻi, featured the deans of medicine, nursing, social work, and the associate director of public health.

Dr. Peter Donnelly - Kanaka Maoli family physician, practicing on the Neighbor Islands, my mentor in Hawaiian Pidgin and how to be local (I fail abjectly on both counts) - asked what the panelists think of nurse practitioners telling him that they can do anything he can do, at less cost.  One panelist suggested, "If you can't beat them, join them," so you might as well go get your MBA.

The claim that a non-physician provider can do the work of a physician at less cost ignores (perhaps willingly) the distinction between earning less and costing less.  Certainly non-physician providers earn less than physicians.  Dr. Stephen Kemble - psychiatrist and a stalwart for single-payer, who had been decrying the business takeover of health care from the audience all morning - noted that with regards to the provision of mental health, the evidence shows that non-physician therapists can actually cost the mental health system more than psychiatrists.  (He was citing an unpublished study performed by a Hawaiʻi health insurance outfit.)

Of note, a study in the September 2015 issue of Medical Care found that diabetic patients cared for by nurse practitioners had comparable rates of  preventable admissions as primary care physiciansThe provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care. The medical profession as a whole must shoulder part of the blame for the present situation.  Specialty control over the reimbursement system results, naturally, in disproportionately higher reimbursement for procedures and disproportionately lower reimbursement for primary care. See Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care. [1] This ensures that most medical students will choose specialty training so that there are not enough primary care physicians to care for all of us.  To the extent that physicians obtain MBAs and figure out how to game the extant reimbursement system [e.g. hire an N.P. to consult on patients so the gastroenterologist can perform colonoscopies in the surgicenter (anus to anus time of under 10 minutes) all day] - the proceduralist specialties are complicit.  Indeed, there is no reason why the gastroenterologist should explain the risks, benefits, and the bowel prep for screening colonoscopies.

We family physicians learn during residency that the practice of primary care is, in many ways more complex than specialty practice. [2] A well-trained, experienced provider of any discipline can deal with many complex patient problems for which a less intensively-trained, less experienced provider may order unnecessary tests or referrals.  Thus, while a primary care physician may earn more than a non-physician provider, the cost to the health care system may be less.

In addition, the provider who cares enough to invest the time to talk with and assess the patient may also decide upon less intensive courses of care.  These days, you can be largely assured that if you presents to the ED with a headache, you’re going to get a CT scan of your head.  If you present with abdominal pain, you’re going to get a CT of your abdomen.  Many patients with symptoms clearly suggested of reflux are kept in the hospital for observation to “rule out myocardial infarction.”  So, conversely, while a primary care physician may earn less than an emergency physician, the cost to the health care system may also be less.

While part of the problem may be that the nursing profession is eager to escape the yoke long placed upon it by the medical profession - perhaps the larger problem is what Dr. Kemble identified as the incursion of the business model into health care.

The business model is predicated on delivering a standardized product with quality controls on what can be measured at prices that the market will bear.  Thus at any fast food franchise, one can reasonably expect a hamburger without too much E. coli in it, at the price listed behind the counter.  The MBAs who run our health care systems have no concept of the importance of, for example, a longitudinal patient-doctor relationship to health outcomes.  If they can replace an experienced primary care physician with a lower-paid "provider," it's better for the bottom line. 

We in family medicine should not be picking a fight with the nursing profession.  (For the sake of patient outcomes, I am happy to help nurse practitioners improve their practice, and I am happy to learn from them what they do best.)  I think that the main problem is the marketplace model of health care.  Capitalism has always depended on maintaining a certain percentage of unemployment in order to keep workers a little afraid of losing their jobs and therefore toeing the line.  The corporate takeover of health care means pitting the lowest rung of the physician class, the primary care physicians, against a growing workforce of providers with different qualifications eager to take their jobs.  From where I stand, I think that all health workers need to unite against that.

[1] Freeman J. Outing the RUC: Medicare reimbursement and Primary Care.

[2] Freeman J, Petterson S, Bazemore A. Accounting for Complexity: Aligning Current Payment Models with the Breadth of Care by Different Specialties. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Dec 1;90(11):790.

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