This week’s New Yorker has another article by doctor and health care policy expert Atul Gawande. In the article he attempts to probe why medical costs in this country are spiraling out of control, singling-out one particular outlier in Texas:
It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.
McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami–which has much higher labor and living costs–spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns. [Link]
p>By systematically eliminating all the likely suspects (e.g., it’s the lawyers and their malpractice suits that cause health care costs to soar), Gawande comes to a conclusion that many doctors probably already grudgingly realize through experience. It is doctors (not all, just the ones who increasingly advocate for tests that the patient probably does not need) who are driving up health care costs for everyone:
“McAllen is legal hell,” the cardiologist agreed. Doctors order unnecessary tests just to protect themselves, he said. Everyone thought the lawyers here were worse than elsewhere.
That explanation puzzled me. Several years ago, Texas passed a tough malpractice law that capped pain-and-suffering awards at two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Didn’t lawsuits go down?
“Practically to zero,” the cardiologist admitted.
“Come on,” the general surgeon finally said. “We all know these arguments are bullshit. There is overutilization here, pure and simple.” Doctors, he said, were racking up charges with extra tests, services, and procedures. [Link]
p>This issue will be of particular importance to the South Asian American community as we approach an attempt at comprehensive immigration reform by the Obama administration. As we well know, medical school students are disproportionately desi. These students will become practicing doctors who will have to choose to either be part of the solution or conform to the problem. I realize this choice isn’t as black and white as I make it sound but I assume there is some discretion. Some of it will boil down to the teaching philosophy employed where they trained and their motivation for becoming a doctor in the first place (e.g. wealth, intellectual curiosity, service, etc.). The greatest factor however, may be the market in which they serve. Gawande finds that there is a”keeping up with the Joneses” profit effect at work.
Woody Powell is a Stanford sociologist who studies the economic culture of cities. Recently, he and his research team studied why certain regions–Boston, San Francisco, San Diego–became leaders in biotechnology while others with a similar concentration of scientific and corporate talent–Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York–did not. The answer they found was what Powell describes as the anchor-tenant theory of economic development. Just as an anchor store will define the character of a mall, anchor tenants in biotechnology, whether it’s a company like Genentech, in South San Francisco, or a university like M.I.T., in Cambridge, define the character of an economic community. They set the norms. The anchor tenants that set norms encouraging the free flow of ideas and collaboration, even with competitors, produced enduringly successful communities, while those that mainly sought to dominate did not.
Powell suspects that anchor tenants play a similarly powerful community role in other areas of economics, too, and health care may be no exception. I spoke to a marketing rep for a McAllen home-health agency who told me of a process uncannily similar to what Powell found in biotech. Her job is to persuade doctors to use her agency rather than others. The competition is fierce. I opened the phone book and found seventeen pages of listings for home-health agencies–two hundred and sixty in all. A patient typically brings in between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred dollars, and double that amount for specialized care. She described how, a decade or so ago, a few early agencies began rewarding doctors who ordered home visits with more than trinkets: they provided tickets to professional sporting events, jewelry, and other gifts. That set the tone. Other agencies jumped in. Some began paying doctors a supplemental salary, as “medical directors,” for steering business in their direction. Doctors came to expect a share of the revenue stream. [Link]
p>The article points to the Mayo Clinic as a hospital which bucks the trend through a concerted effort which puts the needs of the patient before revenue:
The core tenet of the Mayo Clinic is “The needs of the patient come first”–not the convenience of the doctors, not their revenues. The doctors and nurses, and even the janitors, sat in meetings almost weekly, working on ideas to make the service and the care better, not to get more money out of patients. I asked Cortese how the Mayo Clinic made this possible.
“It’s not easy,” he said. But decades ago Mayo recognized that the first thing it needed to do was eliminate the financial barriers. It pooled all the money the doctors and the hospital system received and began paying everyone a salary, so that the doctors’ goal in patient care couldn’t be increasing their income. Mayo promoted leaders who focussed first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially possible.
No one there actually intends to do fewer expensive scans and procedures than is done elsewhere in the country. The aim is to raise quality and to help doctors and other staff members work as a team. But, almost by happenstance, the result has been lower costs.realize that we are witnessing a battle for the soul of American medicine. Somewhere in the United States at this moment, a patient with chest pain, or a tumor, or a cough is seeing a doctor. And the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.
There is no insurance system that will make the two aims match perfectly. But having a system that does so much to misalign them has proved disastrous. As economists have often pointed out, we pay doctors for quantity, not quality. As they point out less often, we also pay them as individuals, rather than as members of a team working together for their patients. Both practices have made for serious problems.
Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coordination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check. [Link]
I am guessing many South Asian American doctors read SM and I am sure this is a touchy subject. I would appreciate hearing your views after reading the whole piece in the New Yorker in addition to my post. Are there only two distinct choices as Gawande describes at the end? Do you feel you have a choice as to which type of medicine you choose to practice or are your hands tied by circumstance?