As readers probably know, the health care reform bill passed the House tonight, by a thin margin and with the Democrats offering a large concession by limiting reimbursements on abortions.
Thomas Frank has a good piece in the New York Times tonight, in which he argues that health care reform might lead more doctors to be salaried rather than in an entrepreneurial format in a system that is piecework and therefore rewards more procedures, and therefore encourages doctors to run tests and procedures, adding to healthcare costs.
If you don’t think this happens, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. I had had a very good doctor before I went overseas for two years, but when I came back, he was no longer practicing (he had taken an job with a small drug company). I had surprising trouble finding a doctor I liked remotely as much as him (and I found doctors I liked in Syndey pretty readily, so I don’t believe I am unduly fussy). I also have a a good insurance policy, it allows me to see anyone with a 20% copay. I can go directly to a specialist, no gatekeeper nonsense. But a 20% copay is also enough to make me sensitive to overtesting.
One doctor I was referred to had his own townhouse. Bad sign. Decorated like that of a plastic surgeon. Second bad sign. He interviewed patients (by then in a gown) in a surprisingly cavernous office for a townhouse behind a large desk that I swear reminded me of Nazi Gemany (and I am a WASP and therefore not inclined to that line of thought). It read to me as an effort to intimidate, and he confirmed that by looking at my file and sneering, “XXX [my address] That’s a rental, isn’t it?”
Even though I am basically healthy, he proceeded to order $2000 worth of bloodwork and have me take an highly sensitive echocardiogram in his office (a $1300 test). Now mind you, my last doctor, a board certified cardiologist, said, “You would be immortal based on your heart.” There was not reason to run a costly test on my heart, but I didn’t know it was costly until I got the bill. I did have an idea what the damage on the bloodwork would be, though, and refused to have that done.
I also had an incident earlier where an orthopedic surgeon was particularly eager to operate on my knee despite a pretty ambivalent radiologist’s report on an MRI. Even though the report said, “possible false positive” his reaction was, “Oh, I’ll just go in, have a look, clean whatever I find up, you’ll be in on a Friday and walking by Monday. ” A second opinion (by a team of radiologists on the same MRI) found my knee was “perfectly normal.”
I hate to give personal anecdotes, but if as a pretty healthy person who does not see doctors often, I have had two clear experiences of doctors pushing to overtreat (and a few borderline cases too), how often does this happen to the average Joe, who might not be in as good general health and less of a constitutional skeptic than me?
Most patients are not able or wiling to buck their doctors if they order unnecessary tests or procedures. Frank describes the general case:
Most doctors undoubtedly recommend only those tests and procedures that they sincerely believe to be in their patients’ best interests. Yet those interests are seldom completely clear. And when doctors know that their incomes will be higher if they recommend additional procedures, many may tilt in that direction.
Physicians, like everyone else, are also subject to herd behavior. If some doctors in a given city begin prescribing additional procedures, others may feel pressure to follow suit — not just because patients expect it, but also to keep pace with colleagues’ incomes.
Yves here. There are most decidedly national as well as regional differences in practice. I noticed when I was in Australia, doctors were up on the current research, but were not inclined to swallow it hook, line and sinker. They were, far more than US doctors, very cognizant of the limits of recent studies (for instance, if it was a small sample size, or was a particular population, and thus not necessarily generalizable). And they were much less eager to operate and prescribe drugs.
Frank does point out that some approaches to cutting the test-happiness of US medicine have yielded positive outcomes:
In an article in The New Yorker, for example, Atul Gawande described an entrepreneurial medical subculture in McAllen, Tex., in which doctors prescribe roughly half again as many tests and procedures as those in otherwise similar Texas communities. McAllen, he argued, is where American health care is heading.
Current reform bills do little to curtail such spending, and all include subsidies to help meet insurance mandates, which would shift substantial existing health spending onto the federal budget. So enacting one of these bills would intensify pressure to cut costs.
The good news is that Dr. Gawande also identifies at least some health plans, like that of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, that have sidestepped the incentive problem by putting doctors on salary and operating their own hospitals. Such plans, which provide superb care and high patient satisfaction at significantly lower cost than conventional fee-for-service plans, would become more attractive under the proposed legislation.
But Frank asks the obvious question, and provides his own answer:
But that raises a puzzling question: If the Mayo model is better and cheaper, why hasn’t it swept the market like wildfire?
Part of the answer lies in the so-called adverse selection problem, a market failure that explains why so many Americans remain uninsured. When the decision to buy insurance is left to individuals, the young and healthy often opt out, thinking — generally correctly — that their premiums are likely to far exceed any reimbursement they will get.
But that means that the remaining members of the insured pool, on average, are significantly less healthy, so premiums must rise further. This puts pressure on the healthiest remaining members to drop out, causing still further increases in premiums, and so on…
But adverse selection can’t explain why the Mayo model hasn’t gained ground faster in the employer-provided health insurance market. That market doesn’t suffer from adverse selection, because insurance is tax deductible only if insurers accept all employees on equal terms.
Dr. Gawande reports that Mayo has recently opened a clinic that serves employers in the high-cost Florida market. But given how bitterly businesses complain about rising health care costs, we might have expected much more movement.
One explanation may be residual prejudice against the for-profit H.M.O. wave of the 1990s, which entailed a conflict of interest of a different sort. Patients paid a fixed annual fee, which meant that H.M.O.’s made more money each time they avoided prescribing a procedure. Because clinics like Mayo’s are nonprofits, they may avoid this conflict.
Another factor militating against quick expansion of the Mayo model is that many current doctors chose their profession hoping to earn lucrative pay, which they might not be able to do in a nonprofit clinic. But across the economy, we see talented professionals whose career choices are driven by concerns far broader than pay. Many top graduates from elite law schools, for example, turn down lucrative positions in corporate law to work for public-interest groups paying a third as much.
I suspect Frank is right on the pay issue, but for the wrong reasons. I am always staggered when I hear of law school and business school graduates being in debt to the tune of $100,000, even $200,000. I have no idea what the level for MDs is, but I imagine it is even worse.
And you cannot discharge student debt in a bankruptcy. You have no choice but to pay it (or I suppose flee the US or go underground, there are always extreme options). So the fee for service model may remain intact despite the fact that it produces poor outcomes for society as a whole because the current generation of doctors needs high incomes to so they can service their debts.