In the February 16, 2023 issue of The Nation, epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves writes about The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine. It is a particularly good and thorough review of the corruption of American medicine by the quest for profit, and the growing resistance of many physicians to its adverse effects on themselves and, more important, the health of their patients.
He cites several other recent articles that emphasize different aspects of this situation. Eric Reinhardt, writing in the New York Times about physician burnout, calls for increased unionization of physicians to counter the power of the corporate controllers of US medical care. Gonsalves also cites a JAMA Viewpoint by former CMS administrator Don Berwick calling out the many ways that greed perverts and destroys American healthcare, using the old Pompeiian phrase Salve lucrum, “Hail Profit”, and naming it an existential threat. Finally, he cites an article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine by Gondi, Kishore, and McWilliams called “Professional Backgrounds of Board Members at Top-Ranked US Hospitals” which identifies the fact that US hospitals are run by people with finance, not healthcare, backgrounds:
At top-ranked US hospitals, the most common professional background for board members is finance, far exceeding representation from physicians, nurses, and other health care workers. Over half (~56%) of board members are from finance or business, while a small minority (~15%) have clinical training or are from the health services sector.
Gonsalves notes how the perversion of healthcare, particularly medical care, by an explicit profit motive leads to the US having both the greatest cost and the worst health outcomes of the wealthy countries of the world, but then goes beyond that to further criticize our reliance on medical care as the avenue to people’s health. He cites the National Academy of Sciences estimate that medical care accounts for only 10-20% of health, with social determinants (and, one could convincingly argue, social determination) accounting for the other 80-90%. Social determination is found in the structure of our society, conceived perversely on democracy and plutocracy, rooted in the extermination of one set of peoples and the enslavement of another, and the racist roots that continue to poison our social structures today. Social determinants – including poverty, housing, food, education, childcare, and others -- are well documented, and are profoundly poorly addressed by us in the US.
This is more than coincidental. Gonsalves refers to a book by Bradley and Taylor, The American Health Paradox: Why spending more is getting us less (which I discussed, along with a NY Times op-ed they wrote, in a blog post To improve health the US must spend more on social services Dec 18, 2011). The essential point of that book is that, while the US spends far more than other wealthy countries on medical care (twice as much as a few and three times or more as much as most others), it spends far less on other social services and social supports. Furthermore, as Bradley and Taylor document, the US is unique in that of all its spending on social service and medical care, the vast majority is on medical, dwarfing expenditures on food, housing, childcare, job training, and social supports that are far more important in maintaining health and preventing disease, while medical care is focused on treating disease once it is there (for those who can access it, at enormous cost).
These are all true things. Our society spends most of its “social services” money on medical care, and it is directed at the most expensive types of care, those that generate the most profit for the big corporate and venture capital players in the hospital, nursing home, and ambulatory care fields as well as the better-documented profiteers in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. The burnout of physicians from overwork is real and is simply what industrial workers used to call “speed-up”, the demand for more production in the same hours (and for the same pay). In industrial workers, speed-up was and is well known to increase the rate of accidents, both minor and major, and to destroy the psychological health of those workers, so that it is unsurprising that it does the same to doctors and other health workers. What is more surprising is that it has taken so long for them to realize it; over a few decades corporations have taken over almost all of health care delivery, with independent physicians and physician groups that own themselves almost disappearing.
Most hospitals, or “health systems”, are controlled by large corporations – or so they are called if they are for profit. The non-profit health systems, however, including academic health centers, behave scarcely less like corporations, chasing increased revenue (if not “profit” per se), and are, as Gondi et al., demonstrate, just as likely to be led by people with financial backgrounds, rarely medical ones. The good aspect of for profit relative to non-profit hospitals is that they, at least, pay taxes rather than be the recipients of government largesse through being tax-free in return for ostensible, and increasingly unrealized, community benefit. The bad side is that they provide even less community benefit, and generally have worse quality care, than non-profits. In addition, the positive side of the non-profit ledger is enhanced by inclusion of those hospitals in rural areas and inner cities that actually do care for the needy. These, however, are the very ones that are at greatest risk of going bankrupt, and closing because their patients are uninsured or are underinsured, including by Medicaid and even Medicare. A NY Times article recently addressed the increasing closure of rural hospitals, and an even more recent one documents how many rural hospitals are closing their maternity units, because it is a high-cost, low-revenue “service line”, causing rural women to have to travel dangerous distances for pregnancy care and delivery.
In terms of other healthcare operations, such as physician practice groups and nursing homes, “private equity”, venture capital groups, are playing a larger and larger role. Nursing homes have long been primarily private, and of generally poor quality, but they are increasing being acquired by such private equity or health corporations. Those physician practice groups that are not already owned by hospital systems (including academic ones) are often being acquired by the same groups. The results can be disastrous for their patients, particularly when encouraged by the government, as in the ACO/REACH program which I recently discussed (Privatizing Medicare through "Medicare Advantage" and REACH: The Wrong Way to Go!, Jan 20, 2023). Of course, one reason these (misad-)ventures are successful is that their downsides tend to only be apparent once you need care, when you are sick, when the less obvious odious characteristics of such arrangements can stymie you effective access to care. And, of course (and thankfully!) most of us are not sick at any given time.
I have often written that profit, in any form, does not belong in health care. This is absolutely true. The most egregious forms are the corporations that make and sell pharmaceuticals and the insurance companies that existence as parasitic middlemen between health care and patients, not only sucking off money but also limiting care in ways that actually and frequently harm people. But that is only the tip of the corrupt iceberg. Being “non-profit” does not prevent a health system from acting in the same fashion, to maximize revenue, and reward “successful” (i.e., money-making) management accordingly in seven figures.
It is time to have no incentives of any kind that allow any person or organization in health care to make money beyond that which is required to run a high-quality operation and pay workers a reasonable salary or wage. Indeed, the impact on the health care of patients should be the sole criterion for anything that is done or reimbursed.
AND, then, we need to start taking much of the money saved by having less or none going to insurers, pharma, and hospitals and health systems and spending it on ensuring everyone has good financial health care coverage and the social systems needed to support the social determinants of health are in place.