Health Care: The Blind Men and the Elephant

From The Physician Executive in August of 2007.

In health care, management and policy are a couple of steps removed from patient care. Physicians and other health care workers have insights that sometimes fall on deaf ears. But this is the era of Babel in health care; I don’t believe we have a common language yet, so we can actually understand what each of us are saying.

Health policy is a large enough field that, as in medicine, specialties are starting to emerge. When I speak with health policy types and health economists, they often see the world through the glasses of their area of interest. I know of an economist who specializes in transplant allocation. Another health economist is a state secretary of health (how rare is it that government hires a real specialist for any post, instead of a politician?) Some people are dedicated to providing care for the poor, other would like to preserve choices and options, which are usually relevant to the wealthiest and most privileged.

These different perspectives yield emphasis by turns on primary care or specialties, ambulatory or hospital care, cognitive versus procedural practitioners… Health wonks are like blind men trying to figure out what an elephant looks like.

Biological organisms are not mechanical, and this has an impact in various aspects of the health system. I recall an Operations Manager who couldn’t understand why the clinical staff didn’t follow medical guidelines the same way his computer staff created patient files. (This represents the mis-application of Six-Sigma to the wrong level of outcomes.) One of the most dynamic classroom discussion I experienced was when a bunch of mid-career professionals tossed around my assertion that “protocols” and “guidelines” are not the same thing. We settled on protocols for processes and guidelines for diagnosis or treatment. It’s too bad that medicine cannot be based entirely on empirical evidence, as an epidemiologist (I think) commenter to this blog asserts.

The complexity of people as biological and social organisms leaves us with so many unknowns, I am amazed at how much information we have that is actually actionable. But health care remains governed by careful judgment informed by some data, to help navigate the unknowns.

Experience can be a fickle teacher. So much of our perceptions are shaped by personal experiences, and then confirmed by the consequent bias. If we have a bad experience a physician, we are looking for confirmation in any trace of behavior of every subsequent interaction. So outliers can begin to distort our opinion of things: the greedy doctor, the uncaring insurance company, the bean-counting administrator, the abusive patient or the ignorant bureaucrat… These people exist for sure, but the vast majority are working stiffs who show up for work and try to do the best they can before getting home to their families and an over-leveraged mortgage.

In all this, it is the emotional context of health care that is the most ignored. The fear and despair that physicians and nurses see is forgotten in epidemiologists’ regressions, economists’ differentials and executives’ spreadsheets. No, the golden age of medicine is gone and good riddance, but something else this way comes and we don’t yet know what it looks like. Let’s just make sure it works for the middle: the normal patients, health care workers and administrators who show up every day and stay for every shift, no matter how terrible the things they see.

Underfunded, undervalued

This is one of my favorite posts from The Physician Executive, which is especially relevant today as we enter the conversation of reforming payment from our current fee-for-service model to a pay-for-value system in which primary care may finally get the recognition it needs to actually serve its role within the health system.


Funny that people complain about how hard it is to get a good doctor. Sometimes it is important to ask why things are as they are, rather than complain about why they are not better.

I remember a conversation with an internist a couple of years back, who was complaining about how her family physician was so useless…it takes forever for the office to get back to her, appointments are a bear to get, refills take forever and it’s like getting teeth pulled to get him to call her back.

If a primary care doc is running all day trying to get patients through, then I assume he’s busy. That’s good thing. I’ve never waited for reservations at a bad restaurant. A good rule of thumb is that the better doctors’ offices are more crowded.

I know some physicians who have also had the business sense to build incredible systems that can get 30 patients or more in and out daily and still do a good job at it. Not everyone has the administrative skills to do that, even if they are excellent doctors. If the doctor doesn’t spend enough time to listen, the question must turn to what they’re paid for.

Generally, I view phone calls as a waste of time, because they frequently represent an inappropriate service to deliver by phone. Some advice can be safely dispensed at a distance, but nothing is certain without a proper examination. Oh, and that’s what usually what physicians are paid for. They are not paid to dispense advice, provide basic health education, prescribe medication without an assessment, complete forms for patients who haven’t been seen in two years and coordinate referrals for patients who bypassed them entirely and went straight to the specialist. They are paid by the visit, where an examination frequently takes place.

Our physicians at a facility for low-income individuals are allocated fully 20% of their time to do unremunerated administrative functions, only some of which ethically seems appropriate. We stretch the rules in recognition of our patients’ socioeconomic constraints and only because we receive sufficient grant income to support the loss. In private practice… fuggedaboudit. The only reason to do it, is to preserve goodwill, which doesn’t really pay the bills. (This only applies to traditional fee-for-service environments. More about capitation some other time, because that’s a whole different ball of wax.)

Why do physicians with very busy offices have to be so busy? I mean, are they just greedy, churning people like so many little factory widgets? I suspect, while there are some bad apples in the barrel, the majority are skating trying to cover their overhead, payroll, malpractice and hopefully come close to the national average of $150,000 in income. Remember the big bucks are usually reserved for cardiologists, neurosurgeons and other proceduralists, without which no health system would have credibility (source: What’s the use of preventive services if there is no available curative services should prevention fail?

My friend, the internist completed her rant by saying there was no value to primary care since her family doctor couldn’t provide the service she required.

I wondered out loud if that was the way the world always worked, “Underfund the service you need so that it can’t do the job and then complain that it has not value.”

Employed Physicians Becoming More Common

I am on a roll finding old posts from The Physician Executive that are still relevant today. In fact, this post is more relevant today than it was in August 2007.  We now must need to be concerned about how physicians are being managed and in the face of large integrated health systems with an incentive to encourage increased testing and referral. This will still be a major policy issue for the next decade.

Interesting post by Dr. Reece about physician-hospital collaborations at medinnovationblog. There is no question that community hospitals exist in a challenging environment, but each specialty now has its own financial realities that can color the relationship between physician groups and hospitals. My comment, is the most recent trend towards hospital-employed physicians accomplishes two things:

1) it puts physician executives in greater demand
2) it may put more hospital functions under greater physician influence or control.

Surely there are numerous other forces at work here and only the smartest and best informed physicians will win. I don’t believe the golden age of medicine was very good for patients, at least on a population basis. However physicians are often well-positioned to consider the patients’ best interests. Hopefully, the current grass-roots push towards more accountability and better quality-of-care data will combine with a strong physician perspective and professional management skills at hospitals to improve health outcomes overall.

Then again, the landscape may prove just too complex to navigate.