When I was in medical school, my teachers started a lot of their stories with the same phrase:
“Back in my day, I still helped patients who couldn’t pay.”
“Back in my day, we didn’t have 100 checklists.”
“Back in my day, I didn’t need permission from insurance companies to do my job.”
“Back in my day, a yelp review couldn’t ruin my reputation.”
It happened so often that I wondered if I had shown up to the medical profession 30 years too late. Had I signed up for a sham fairytale?
I had thought doctors were autonomous, benevolent masters with kind voices and encyclopedic knowledge. After entering the field, I’ve found most young doctors struggle to balance convention versus empowerment, and doing good versus doing well. Doctors are the ugly stepchild of healthcare reform; too privileged to warrant help, but too powerless to do our jobs better.
I performed more than 2,500 surgeries during my residency training, and I am embarrassed to say that I do not know what a single one of my patients paid for their operations.
I later learned at the public hospital, surgeons were reimbursed $35 for each emergency appendectomy performed. Where did all that money go? Why didn’t the doctors question the system, or try to regain some control?
The provider will see you now
Somewhere along the way, my title as a doctor has been reduced to “provider,” and my worth dictated by administrators, insurance companies—and the government. The Hippocratic Oath I earnestly recited upon starting medical school is challenged everyday by a system of perverse incentives, where hospitals are paid more for treating the sick than keeping the patient well.
Is the answer that doctors should participate more in determining patient fees and reimbursement schedules? History shows that when doctors controlled payments more directly, graduated systems based on ability to pay were subtle but more ubiquitous. In the era of Aristotle, wealthy physicians did not accept payment, while poorer ones requested them. When 9th-century physician and scholoar Ishaq bin Ali al-Ruhawi wrote the first book of medical ethics, he described physicians as business owners who provided free services during times of patronage from caliphs and sultans. Throughout medieval Europe and during the Ottaman Empire, doctors treated the poor with the help of subsidies from royal courts and churches. Notable physicians such as Sir William Osler, legendary French surgeon and anatomist Guillaume Dupuytren, and physician and founder of Dickinson College, Benjamin Rush also charged rich and poor patients based on a self-made sliding scale.
Today, governments, universities, religious groups, and philanthropists are essentially modern-day barons who fund healthcare for the indigent through public hospitals, grants, and charitable work.
In the US, some physicians are granted partial and full student debt forgiveness from the government for working in underserved or rural communities. However, the majority of physicians who volunteer at free clinics, teaching hospitals, charities, or medical missions often do so only because their practice is flexible or lucrative enough to allow them both time away from paying jobs and the financial means to offer free services.
While physicians in private practice have autonomy over who they treat and how much they charge, physicians who work in hospital systems are more and more removed from managing the whole patient.
In 1983, 76% of doctors owned their own practice versus only 47% in 2016. Young physicians today are fundamentally unaware of the business side of medicine, and that’s bad news for everyone. As is the fact that medical students and residents are consistently and idealistically mentored to ignore the costs of materials and treatments we recommend.
We are taught to deliver care based on strict scientific evidence: the “gold standard” of care. Said gold standard, however, does not account for price, diminishing returns, convenience, or pain. The treatment that works best for a lab rat in a cage does not always translate to the most appropriate care for a person who has far more complex needs.
The cost of your health
A more pragmatic physician understands that patients who are underinsured, uninsured, or improperly educated will often forgo procedures, clinic visits, and medications when those interventions are too expensive or inconvenient.
Cost-conscious surgeons know that using instruments to tie stitches instead of hand-tying stitches can often result in a 10-fold cost savings without sacrificing quality.
I did not know how prohibitively expensive everyday surgical consumables cost until I went on humanitarian missions abroad and worked with surgical teams that could not afford these luxuries. I learned that hemostatic fabric we used like disposable napkins in the US cost $40 for a post-it sized square. A five-inch silicone band-aid costs $20. Bioengineered skin substitutes cost $10,000 for a palm-sized sheet.
My lack of price-awareness is fairly common. Many doctors have stopped accounting for the cost portion of a cost-benefit analysis.
And where doctors have leaned away from understanding cost, others have stepped in. Hospital administrators, governments, and insurance companies now manage the costs of healthcare. Correspondingly, physician compensation is estimated to be under 10% of total US national healthcare spending today. Overhead, administration, ancillary staff, malpractice insurance, and pharmaceuticals account for the majority of costs. For an appendectomy and associated care in 2018, the Medicare allowable compensation for a surgeon’s work is $394; meanwhile, healthcare watchdog organizations quote $13,000 as the fair price for hospitals to charge a patient and US hospitals bill an average of $31,000.
Most surgeons working in large hospitals are unaware of these numbers. They are therefore unable to tell patients how much they will be billed for a given operation. A surgeon in the 1830s in the company of the likes of Dr. Dupuytren would know these numbers.
Patients are often dismayed or surprised that their doctor cannot earnestly explain the cost-benefits of different treatments. A 2013 survey by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 87% of graduating doctors felt uncomfortable with their knowledge of the business of medicine and 81% felt they lacked an understanding of healthcare legislation. As surgeons, we have slowly let ourselves become exclusively technicians. Just like Aristotle and Plato said.
By turning our noses up at the business of medicine, we have lost ownership over our patients, and the agency to advocate for them. As Osler said, “The good physician treats the disease. The great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
We as physicians and surgeons need to recover our identity and learn the business skills that our teachers have forgotten, but our forefathers stood up for.