Brian L. Grant MD
Reading the NY Times Review of this book leaves one with their own sense of malaise, whether they are a doctor or a patient. The anecdotes shared reflect the reality for many physicians and health care workers. This writer recalls a number of years ago, refusing to sign off on routine admit orders for a patient who had no need for $5.00 multivitamin tablets that could be purchased at a drug store for a hundredth the cost (not that they were needed at all from a clinical or nutritional standpoint), I was called in to “meet” with the hospital administrator, a non-clinician, who was clearly irritated with my decision, and the general comment that I was going to do what was clinically appropriate and was not concerned with his cost and profit issues. Thankfully I was not an employee of the hospital, or that may have been my last day.
It is hard to feel sorry for colleagues on an economic basis, as physicians are hardly on the bottom rungs of the US economic ladder. But one is more likely to enjoy a waterfront home as an MBA or entrepreneur than an employed physician. The lack of autonomy driven by a seizing of power by payers, drug companies, and non-medical managers is perhaps what drives physician malaise. Medicine is not your father’s profession any longer. Not only is your doctor more likely than ever to be a mother now, but the economic realities of health care have substantially changed. The smartest people in the health care room are as likely to be the investors and non-medical managers who ably control distribution and access. And as has been discussed before in these pages, the lack of market dynamics in a system where the ultimate consumer – the patient — is generally buying without paying, abets a system where abuses like unneeded treatments, consultations, and tests can take place.
Today the new IPhone comes out to great fanfare. It will be expensive relative to most phones. Some will decide they must have it, but many will stick with what they currently have in their pockets – whether a current IPhone or another brand. If phones were paid for by “phone insurance,” many would decide that this latest version is the only acceptable option and that it is unjust and unfair for their carrier to deny them this phone. And of course Apple would determine that their phone will be priced at a much higher rate reflecting the perceived necessity of it and lack of market constraint and competitive drivers like we see in many a medical device, drug, procedure or study.
The saddest part is that while nobody has ever died or been hurt from too nice a piece of consumer electronics (unless they were mugged to get at it), many a patient has been harmed from unneeded care and medical intervention. And society is harmed from way too much money being spent in the health care sector, driven as much by overconsumption as by high prices.
Thoughtful physicians and health practitioners are saddened and disheartened when they conclude that much of what they do lacks value relative to the cost and actual impact. They realize that they are part of a system driven by excesses and motivated by behaviors on the part of colleagues, hospitals and companies that are less than admirable in many cases; and driven on self-interest rather than the physical and economic well-being of patients and society. The ideals that still drive many to enter health care are challenged regularly, leading to a disconnect between one’s self-identity and reality. This can give way to depression, cynicism, or concession. On the other hand there still remain many in medicine who have found ways to do what they love, while serving others with integrity and pride.