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Welcome to the Brave New World of Corporatized Medicine: Just Hope You Don't Get Sick!

"Business freedom" in America increasingly means the God-given right to exploit the vulnerability of the public.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Andy Dean Photography/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

One of the most effective scare techniques employed to preserve our grotesquely inefficient, overpriced health care system has been to invoke the red peril of “socialized medicine”. Never mind that foreigners in advanced economies fail to recognize the caricatures scaremongers supply, or that Americans who need emergency care while overseas are almost without exception impressed with the caliber of care and astonished by the low (sometimes no) cost to them. After all, Americans live in the best of all possible worlds, and consumer and business freedom are always better.

In fact, business freedom here increasingly means the God-given right to exploit the vulnerability of the public. The example slouching into view is more corporate control over the practice of medicine. And based on the previews, it will make the horrors falsely attributed to socialized medicine look pale.

Two accounts last week bring the issue home. The first came in the Health Care Renewal blog (hat tip Lysa). It’s a reminder of how the current institutional efforts to regiment doctors undermine the caliber of medical care. It has become distressingly common for HMOs and other medical enterprises to have business-school trained managers putting factory-style production parameters on doctor visits. Outside of foreclosure mills, it’s hard to find similar approaches in other professions.

The post describes how a pediatrician, Pauline, who has developed a reputation for treating chronic conditions is at loggerheads with her for-profit practice. The suits don’t like her patient mix. She gets too many tough cases, when they’d rather have basically healthy kids who are there for a cold or ear infection. Mind you, this is only partly a money issue. These visits can be “up coded” so as to get larger insurance/patient payments, but she gets a higher level of patients in less-generous state insurance programs. But some of the pushback is that her practice is perceived as disruptive, since she uses what is perceived as too much of her and staff time, separate and apart from the economics. She’s constantly breaking management’s precious guidelines. One of her turf struggles:

She had set up a visit to see a new medically complex patient and had blocked off 40 minutes, the amount of time she felt she needed to do a good job. The child had a complex genetic disorder, cerebral palsy, and heart, lung, and kidney problems. Both the cardiologist and the nephrologist had called asking her to take this patient. She agreed. After she had scheduled the visit, a manager called her and told her that she was being allowed only 15 minutes to see that patient. After some fruitless discussion with him, Pauline finally said, “Okay, I guess that means that you’ll be seeing the patient instead of me, right?” The shocked voice at the other end of the phone line replied, “What do you mean? I don’t know how to take care of patients.” “That’s exactly my point,” Pauline put in.

Pauline explained that this manager assigned to her office is not even a college graduate. Physicians cannot access the schedule electronically and have no control over scheduling. These functions are controlled by the office manager and (amazingly) by some of the medical assistants who have received some “leadership” training. These medical assistants are even allowed to evaluate the clinical competency and skills of the physicians.

And to add insult to injury, how long did this discussion take? All those minutes the doctor spent fighting with a petty bureaucrat come at the expense of patient care.

As an aside, it’s hard to stress enough that this sort of demoralizing micromanagement and unwillingness to listen to and learn from workers, is a widespread shortcoming of management American-style. And it has weirdly been airbrushed out of the media. When I was a kid in business school, US manufacturers were having their clocks cleaned by Germans and the Japanese. There was a good deal of critical self examination back then. One source of foreign ascendancy was that they had newer factories, so you couldn’t really blame American management for that one. But the second was that it was widely acknowledged that US managers were generally poor at dealing with labor. And this wasn’t “labor” in the union sense, but at having productive relationships with factory workers (note that there has been massive revisionist history since then. When I was in Bschool, none of my classmates, nearly half of whom had worked in major manufacturing companies, had bad things to say about unions.) Now you’ll often see the decline of American manufacturing attributed to unions in an “everybody knows that” tone.