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What Do Orthopaedic Surgeons Think About Healthcare Reform?

[Dr. Jim Herndon is a past president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, and chair emeritus of the department of orthopaedic surgery at Partners Healthcare]


The challenges of health care reform are enormous. To expect that the vast array of problems that exist today will be corrected or solved in a couple of months is totally unrealistic. Witness the moving target of announced changes and options occurring daily in the press and media in general. And add to the confusion…these changes are being developed at the top (Congress and the White House)…not from the bottom up (from doctors, nurses and other health care providers, and importantly, patients). In their place are the powerful lobbyists…the health insurance industry, the hospital industry, the drug industry and even organized medicine (AMA)…who wield their influence over our policy makers by all sorts of tangible (financial donations) and intangible (spouses of leaders on corporate boards) pressures.

I must admit, although occasionally said without real meaning…I don’t hear an outburst of support for the essential mission/purpose of health care…the health of our citizens…”the patient comes first”. Where is the patient…who is supposed to come first…in this national debate?

Everyone knows that health care is expensive. In 1970 health care spending consumed 7% of the Gross Domestic Product. In 2009 health care spending is consuming 16% or more of our Gross Domestic Product. It is increasing more rapidly than inflation. Yet, as a nation, we have not…in all these years…had a serious conversation about Americans’ health. Where is it in our list of priorities? I don’t think we know. From recent events we do know it is lower than the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power…it is lower than bailing out investment companies and banks…it is lower than stabilizing the mortgage market…and it is lower than bailing out two automobile manufacturers. I am not knowledgeable enough to question the priority of the bailouts of banks and financial institutions or the mortgage companies…but I do question the priority of removing another country’s dictator or bailing out two automobile manufacturers instead of allowing them to proceed through bankruptcy in our court system…over health care reform.

Too often in my lifetime I have seen the importance of health care reform pushed down the list of priorities over other needed programs…to wait for another day. How important is the patient, the health of Americans today? How far are we going to push the profession of medicine from “a calling”…a profession, as President Obama states to “a business”. It is known that patients trust their doctors, but not our health care system. When will patients begin to trust their own doctors less? It will happen if and when they believe doctors are more “concerned with the pulse of commerce” rather than the “pulse of their patients”. I submit we are getting very close to this tipping point…in losing the trust of our patients and society in general.

There is no unanimity of opinion regarding the health care reform debate…amongst Democrats, amongst Republication…amongst the public…amongst physicians in general…and orthopaedic surgeons specifically. I asked a few young physicians in an orthopaedic residency program their opinions about the health care reform debate. All believed that every American should have basic health care insurance coverage. Obvious to them, it would include coverage for care of patients with acute fractures or patients with severe pain or loss of function. They admit not knowing much about the “public option” and the swirling politics going on. They also were not comfortable with defining what situations or problems would not be covered by insurance…although they agreed that some restrictions above “basic care” would have to be implemented.

Their responses reminded me that in 1990, when I was in graduate school for an MBA…we had a class debate about whether health care was a right or not of all citizens? Although the discussion was lively and some felt health care was a privilege, the class conceded that health care was a right of all citizens…admitting historically it was considered a privilege for the few who could afford it, but then (1990 or earlier?) health care had become a right for all in the US. I then asked a few of my colleagues who enjoy leadership positions in the field of orthopaedic surgery their opinions regarding health care reform. They also could not agree on the issues of this debate.

One area where they did agree was that academic medical centers are not well positioned for the future…especially those that depend on state funding. We have already witnessed this in Massachusetts where apparently the state has decreased funding to some teaching hospitals that traditionally have cared for a large number of uninsured. Now that most citizens have insurance, they are seeking their care in other hospital emergency departments. My colleagues also agree that physicians will receive lower payments for specific treatments or participate in “bundled” payments to the entire healthcare team/facility for comprehensive care of the patient.

Otherwise my colleagues disagreed. On the one side some support the public option and universal coverage…although “the devil is in the details”. For this group they have become tired…like so many American physicians…with the convoluted way we finance health care and the associated paper trail/documentation overload. The system has made some patient conditions profitable and others not profitable…described by one as “perverted incentives”. These physicians (me included) are angry at the loss of our professionalism as hospitals and physicians chase dollars and not the health needs of each patient and the public. On the other side (against public option), my colleagues have some agreements…most orthopaedic surgeons are supportive of care of the uninsured and underinsured, especially for patients presenting with acute problems to hospitals’ emergency departments. Most also agree that there needs to be a serious realignment of incentives and improved collaboration of hospitals and doctors.

But they have many disagreements…including the provision of elective care. They argue…with good reasons…that with continued rising costs to practice medicine (rent, electronic records, employee wages and benefits, malpractice insurance, increased personnel requirements for the administration/paperwork overload) and continued reductions in reimbursement (Medicare, for example, pays an orthopaedic surgeon today approximately 50% of the reimbursement it paid for a total hip replacement in 1990)…it is becoming increasingly problematic to provide elective care for the underinsured and uninsured. They commonly ask…”How can you provide care that costs more than any receipts”?

Other disagreements include: the single payor system…they don’t believe it will work; although well-intended, they believe these reforms will result in overall lower quality of care for patients; that emergency departments will still be used by those with insurance because patients can see a physician at the patients’ convenience and avoid long delays to see a doctor in his/her office…for example there is a 40-day wait to see an orthopaedist in his/her office in Boston; the continued tremendous demands by American patients to have the latest technology, the latest treatment…even if evidence for its use is unknown; skepticism about the prevention of disorders that have a genetic basis, i.e. osteoarthritis…in the foreseeable future; the simple fact that to reduce errors and overuse/misuse of tests by an electronic medical record and computer physician-order system will cost enormous amounts of increased spending in the short term…before cost savings are eventually realized… and to draw attention to one specific unsolved problem area…Workers’ Compensation…where orthopaedists, daily, see ineffective treatments being used and large numbers of patients on disability.

Briefly, the follow are factors that have led to increased and inefficient health care in the US: high administrative costs; overuse of services and new technology; an increased prevalence of chronic disease; tremendous geographic variations in care; increased payments not resulting in improved quality; a continually high number of medical errors and complications; a broken professional liability system; a shift in costs from the uninsured to the insured; a predominant third-party payer system; overuse and misuse of care; focus changing from the patient to the pocketbook; insurance company abuses (cherry-picking healthy patients, denying care of patients with chronic disease, deliberately lowering the normal of “usual and customary” fees…to name a few); and continued issues of fraud and abuse, especially in the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Finally I would like to close with the official position of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) on health care reform: “Any changes to the health care financing and delivery system…the well-being of the patient must be the highest priority. The AAOS strongly supports reform measures…that provide individuals with patient-centered, timely, unencumbered, affordable and appropriate health care and universal coverage while maintaining physicians as an integral component to providing the highest quality treatment”.

The AAOS is opposed to a single-payer health system or even a federal health care authority. The AAOS suggests “a number of tax initiatives…that will level the playing field and make health care coverage more affordable”. There should be “adoption of policies that restore equity and enhance market competition”. The AAOS also “strongly believes that patient empowerment and individual responsibility are necessary components of health care reform. Health choices should be recognized and preventive care should be promoted”.

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