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Some of My Best Friends Are Doctors

Steven Pearlstein actually wrote that in the Washington Post on Wednesday, right after (another) long rant against physicians.  At the end, he offers doctors an olive branch.  Or maybe its an offer he thinks doctors can’t refuse:

The choice for doctors now is quite clear: They can agree to give up a modest amount of autonomy and income, embrace more collaboration in the way they practice medicine and take their rightful place at the center of a reform effort that will allow them to focus more on patient care.  Or they can continue to blame everyone else and remain — stubbornly — a part of the problem.

After reading Pearlstein’s columns, I’m still sure not why he has such a problem with doctors.  I am beginning to think it’s because he just misunderstands them.

Pearlstein is convinced that doctors go into medicine for the same reasons investment bankers go to Wall Street: to make money.

Docs seem to take it as a given that physicians in the United States should earn twice as much as doctors in the rest of the world — and five times more than their patients, on average.  Mention these facts and you are guaranteed to get a lecture about the crushing debt burden that young docs face upon completion of their medical training.  Offer to trade free medical education for a 20 percent reduction in physician fees, and you won’t find many takers.

Pearlstein has no source for these claims, but let’s assume they’re true, and do the math.  The government says that there are 633,000 doctors in the United States, and they earned median salaries between $135,000 and $320,000 a year.  If we take a number in the middle — say $200,000 — that means that American doctors earn about $125 billion a year.  A big number, but total health care expenses in the United States are over $2 trillion, which means doctors represent about 5% of the total.  Can physician salaries really be driving our health care problems?

It seems unlikely.  But Pearlstein is desperate for it to be true, so he keeps trying to discount all of the other possible causes of our problems as examples of conspiracies or arrogance or sloppiness:

For example, medical malpractice litigation is a problem…

But one of the reasons malpractice suits are still necessary is because doctors have transformed local professional review boards, which are supposed to protect patients, into nothing more than mutual protection societies

The “infelixible bureaucratic processes” that insurers impose are a problem….

But given that there is overwhelming evidence that doctors tend to order up tests, perform surgeries and prescribe treatments whose costs far outweigh the benefits, you can hardly blame the insurers.

We think it is good to have  “clever and creative” doctors…..

but . . . we could all have better health at a lower cost if docs were less inclined toward the medical equivalent of the diving catch and simply were more disciplined about kneeling down for routine ground balls.

Doctors should be applauded for embracing evidence-based medicine…

however, practicing  physicians still think that nothing should interfere with the sacred right of doctors and patients to make all medical decisions, even when they are wrong.

Pearlstein’s views on how doctors think are fundamentally flawed.  He thinks of them like stock brokers, pushing questionable stock to make commissions for themselves.  He’s thought of all the different ways doctors are abusing the system to their own advantage, but he doesn’t seem to have thought that maybe, possibly, he’s wrong.

So, yes, some doctors abuse the privilege of being asked to help their patients.  But the overwhelming majority don’t.  They want to spend as much time as they can with their patients, collecting information, thinking about their problem, and offering good, sound advice.  They are bothered by the involvement of the insurance company or the government or the plaintiff’s lawyer not because they believe they have a “sacred right” to total independence.  Or because they think the way to fix health care is to give them “free rein to treat their patients . . . run the hospitals and set their own fees.”

No, it is because these things actually interfere with the doctor’s ability to think, process and decide with their patient on the right things to do.

Pearlstein and other would-be reformers of our health care system need to reconsider their assumptions on what motivates doctors.  Maybe it’s something Pearlstein should ask some of his friends about.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

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2 Responses to “Some of My Best Friends Are Doctors”

  1. bat says:

    The major culprits for the unaffordable costs of medical care are undoubtedly doctors fees.
    If we truly want to make health care affordable for everyone, the govt has to put a cap on doctors fees. Can somebody explain to me why doctors think that they are entitled to absurd amount of cash to examine a patient?

  2. bat says:

    The major culprits for the unaffordable costs of medical care are undoubtedly doctors fees.
    If we truly want to make health care affordable for everyone, the govt has to put a cap on doctors fees. Can somebody explain to me why doctors think that they are entitled to absurd amount of cash to examine a patient?

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