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A Time for Doctors to Stand up and be Heard

Over the centuries, many societies have elevated the medical profession in thought and deed.  Not that long ago this was true in the U.S., when our citizens showed more respect for doctors as professionals and fellow citizens than is demonstrated today. Now, everyone seems to agree that healthcare reform is drastically needed, and many are speaking out. Yet, the frank indifference to the opinions of doctors by those outside the medical profession mutes the voice and counsel of doctors on the subject.  The AMA (American Medical Association) and many other physician groups are speaking out on reform, but their voice is diluted by a cacophony of assumptions, opinions, and by legislation existing and proposed. A new healthcare system has been formed, in large part, without seeking the input of those needed to make it work:  practicing physicians.

Recently, I overheard a discussion regarding healthcare reform while eating lunch at a local restaurant.  The debate hinged on who is most qualified to make healthcare-related decisions.  The following consensus was reached:  no one today should complain about the government taking over healthcare because allowing insurance companies to make all the decisions in the past resulted in a broken healthcare system.  Those surrounding this particular lunch table agreed that the time had come for government to have their turn, while opposition could best be characterized as siding with the insurance companies. I wonder: can the debate really be so simply framed?

Saddened by the realization that such a discussion could be loudly and passionately debated without mentioning doctors, I resisted the urge to point out that physicians had made the healthcare decisions before insurance companies gained control.  The fact physicians were not even mentioned attests to the sad truth that for many people doctors are merely seen as one part of a broken healthcare machine.  Most physicians see their lot differently, and consider themselves as being in a veritable state of conflict with health insurance companies; however, our participation in a failing healthcare system has afforded these very same companies with the opportunity to put physician’s faces on their failed practices, with public opinion supporting this assumption.

Regardless of your opinion on Medicare, this last major government intervention into healthcare can help illustrate the very point that I am trying to make.  On May 20, 1962, President Kennedy argued for Medicare, addressing a crowd of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. The President was televised gratis by the three major networks reaching an additional 20 million people in their homes.  Two days later, the AMA rebutted his argument, purchasing thirty minutes on NBC, with their speaker reaching an estimated audience of 30 million people. This broadcast, more far-reaching and influential than the President’s, delayed the proposed Medicare system by several years.  Forty-seven years ago, people in this country wanted to know what doctors had to say before major decisions regarding healthcare were made.  Today, they do not.

As the discussion about healthcare reform continues, practicing physicians must be heard from to interject real medical experience into the debate and, hopefully, guide the future of healthcare by influencing legislation existing and proposed.  I am trying to remain optimistic despite the concern I feel in noting that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, section 3000 (pages 511, 518, 540-541) exemplifies the minimization of medical practitioners, using terminology like “Meaningful” ‘USERS’ to describe physicians.

The question is now raised: what should medical practitioners do to be heard, to influence healthcare reform, to play a leadership role in this time of change?  When I write next time; I will share some of our ideas, put them on the table, if you will.  But, I would encourage you to proffer those suggestions that you might have.  It appears we can either speak up now or choose to be “meaningful” later.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD

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