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The Future Of Small Practices

This blog was written from Toronto, Ontario, where ACP’s elected Board of Governors met to provide direction on the policies to be advocated by the organization.

One issue raised by many of the governors is the enormous economic pressure on smaller internal medicine practices, and what the ACP might be able to do about it. Today, most physicians work in private practices of ten or fewer. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Corporate Executives Astonished By Average Physician’s Income

By Stanley Feld MD, FACP, MACE

Physicians in practice work hard and have little time for political and legal trickery. They assume their leadership will look out for their interests while they take care of patients.

The problem is that physicians do not have effective leadership, explaining the difficulties practicing physicians have every day with the healthcare insurance industry, hospital administrators, the government and the threat of liability. Most physicians are caring professionals who are not looking to rip off anyone. Physicians do expect reasonable compensation commensurate with their training, level of expertise and level of responsibility.

I recently presented a physician income survey to a group of corporate executives. The executives were astonished by the level of physician income relative to their level of responsibility.

The unanimous reaction of these corporate executives was the average physician’s income was that of a low mid-level manager. It is true some practice specialties earn more but the average income of practicing physicians is not commensurate with their knowledge and responsibility. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

The AMA And Congress: How To Cross The Cultural Divide

The AMA’s communications department kindly sent me a copy of a letter that they (and 9 other professional society CEOs or Presidents) recently sent to Barack Obama and 12 members of congress. I’ve been blogging about the fact that healthcare providers in general, and physicians in particular, do not seem to have much of a voice in healthcare policy. In fact, from what I can tell, Dr. Nancy Nielsen is carrying the torch almost exclusively. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s efforts, it’s just that I’ve noticed that she is often the only physician at the highest level policy meetings.

So it was with great interest that I read the group letter to Obama et al., wondering what collective message our physician leaders were trying to get across. The writing was academic – using terminology familiar to those heavily steeped in medicine – and emphasized the creation of a patient-centered culture supported by evidence based medicine.

However, the letter raised an interesting question in my mind: Will members of congress read and understand it? I believe that the most effective letters to congress are likely to share three qualities: 1) they must be emotionally provocative 2) they must be written at about the 6th grade reading level 3) they must be brief.

Why Letters Must Appeal To Emotion (“Cultural Competency”)

Dr. Nielsen said at a recent Medicare Policy Summit that speaking with Senators can be “pure theatre.” That has been my observation as well. Decades of experience speaking in large committee meetings have taught them that amusing sound bites or emotional outbursts get attention. In fact, it may be the best way to get things done in congress. For example, did you know that the reason why kidney care is the only disease-based eligibility under Medicare is that Shep Glazer testified before congress during one of his dialysis sessions?

Washington , D.C. , Nov. 4, 1971 – In the most dramatic plea ever made on behalf of kidney patients, Shep Glazer, Vice-President of NAPH, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee while attached to a fully functioning artificial kidney machine.

Minutes before, in the corridor outside the hearing room, Shep told reporters from the AP, UPI, and the Washington Post, “Gentlemen, I am going to tell the Committee that if dialysis can be performed on the floor of Congress, it can be performed anywhere.” As his wife, Charlotte , connected him to the machine, he continued, “Kidney patients don’t have to be confined to hospitals, where expenses are $25,000 a year and more per patient. It’s much cheaper in a satellite unit or at home. I want to show the Committee what dialysis is really like. I want them to remember us.”

My point is that in congress, as opposed to medical meetings, emotion is king. Physicians have a hard time speaking from the gut, since we’re trained to speak from data – because we know that the gut can be misleading. However, my plea to physician groups is this: let’s collect our data, understand the science behind our point of view, and then present our advice in a way that is persuasive to congress. That means we’d probably benefit from a few theatre classes (can we get CME credit for them?) I’m not suggesting that we become undignified in any way – I’m just saying that personal stories, case studies, and appeals to emotion are the currency on the Hill. If we want attention, we’ll need to find a way to make our points in their own language.

For example, I was listening in to a recent Senate hearing on healthcare finance, when a Republican senator began his introductory remarks about “out of control spending” with this:

I must tell you that I have major concerns about our current approach to spending. We’ve already sunk billions of dollars into all kinds of bailouts and programs without any clear benefits. But every time I bring up the excessive spending issue, you’d think I was a skunk at a picnic…

An amusing analogy, and one that resonated with his peers. This Senator understood the culture to which he was speaking. In other words, he had a “culturally competent” message.

Why Letters Should Be Written At About The 6th Grade Reading Level (Health Literacy)

Dr. Richard Carmona told me that one of the first things he learned as Surgeon General was that the American people understand health information at a 6th grade reading level. Thus, there is no point in making a 100+ page medical report on the health hazards of smoking the corner stone of a public smoking cessation campaign.

Health information must be written in a clear, and actionable manner – but it must also be delivered in such a way that it resonates with diverse communities. Letters to congress are no different – many of our congressmen and women do not have advanced medical or science degrees. We must be sensitive to that and write to them in a way that makes it easy for them to understand what we’re hoping to accomplish.

Why Letters Must Be Very Brief

Much has been made of the fact that many people who signed the recent 1000+ page stimulus bill hadn’t actually reviewed it. In fact, it is estimated that 306 members of Congress voted for a bill they had not read.

Of the 535 members of the United States House and Senate,  246 House members and 60 members of the august Senate voted for the $787 billion  stimulus bill without having read a single one of the bill’s 1,071 pages or having any idea of where all of this money borrowed from our grandchildren is going to be spent.

So if our members of Congress don’t read the stimulus bill, will they take the time to read long letters from professional societies? I think you know the answer.

Conclusion

The AMA should be applauded for their lobbying efforts on the part of physicians in Washington. However, my personal view is that letters to congress may be more effective if they are written in a concise, jargon-free, compelling way that respects the “culture” of congress. We physicians hear a lot about “health literacy” and “cultural competency” – and must remember to apply those principles to letter-writing campaigns.

Will any letter influence congressional decision-making? It’s hard to measure the “ROI” of group letters to congress – and certainly they’re only one part of a larger strategy. However, it behooves us physicians to find ways to reach across the cultural divide to speak to congress about the issues that trouble us all: the fate of patients. Letters may be helpful, but an increased presence in Washington, along with some heartfelt reasoning, may be our best shot. Perhaps the Broadway actors affected by the economic recession could help us out?

AMA President Dr. Nancy Nielsen At The Medicare Policy Summit

nancy-nielsen-ama1I attended my very first Medicare Policy Summit conference today – and it was truly riveting (wonk alert). I took copious notes and will do my best to summarize some key points in a series of blog posts. This first post is devoted to the presentation by AMA President, Dr. Nancy Nielsen.

Dr. Nielsen began her lecture with an amusing story. She said, “congressional hearings are pure theatre” and described what she’d experienced three months ago at a meeting with Pete Stark. The conversation went something like this:

Stark: I’m sick of rich doctors driving up in their Porsches saying ‘I’m pulling out of Medicare.’

Nielsen: [Thinking to herself: First witness please?] I drive a GEO jeep.

Then Dr. Nielsen looked out at the Medicare Policy Summit audience and asked, “are there any doctors here?” I raised my hand enthusiastically at the back of the room. Then she responded, “Oh thank God. Well, you know we’re in the lion’s den…”

[Parenthetically, I didn’t see anyone else raise their hand – which is the subject for another conversation.]

What Is The AMA’s Current Agenda?

1. To expand coverage for the uninsured

2. To reform the physician payment system

3. To improve the quality and safety of healthcare

4. To improve public health

What Is The Bee In Nielsen’s Bonnet?

Nielsen explained that the sustainable growth rate is unsustainable. She stated:

“We can’t go through the annual death dance with congress over this. There is another 21% across-the-board cut in Medicare reimbursement scheduled for January 2010. And this cut will affect a group of small business owners (aka physicians) whose reimbursement has not increased since 2001 while their costs have increased 20%.”

What Does Nielsen Propose We Do?

1. Reform the system so that it reimburses for care coordination and prevention

2. Craft solutions based around patients’ needs

3. Rebase the SGR

4. Bundle services to increase value and reduce costs

5. Invest in disease prevention and wellness

6. Use comparative effectiveness to inform clinical decision-making (but NOT as a basis for coverage decisions)

7. Bring physicians into the policy decision-making process

Closing High-Five to Nurses

Dr. Nielsen closed with an amusing anecdote about inauguration day. Apparently she was standing in the sidelines of the parade route where Biden got out of his limo to greet the crowd. He gave a big hug to some nurses standing next to her and said, “I love nurses. They’re so much better than doctors.” Dr. Nielsen then had the opportunity to introduce herself to Biden and he responded, “Doctors saved my life, but nurses gave me the will to live.”

Medical Tourism: Dr. Val Chastised By The American Medical Association

Photo of Dr. Joseph Heyman

Dr. Joseph Heyman

Alright I admit it, that was a rather provocative title. The truth is that at the end of a recent interview with Dr. Joseph Heyman, the chair of the board of trustees of the AMA, I was in fact chided for having left full time clinical practice. Dr. Heyman was rather avuncular in his tone when he stated,

You are robbing patients of the opportunity to have a good clinician like you involved in their care. I guess it reflects badly on our profession that the best and brightest are making alternative career choices – practicing clinical medicine is becoming unbearable.

No amount of protest on my part (about my volunteer work at Walter Reed) would convince Dr. Heyman that I hadn’t abandoned my profession to some degree. And it touched a chord with me too – because taking care of patients is very gratifying for me in many ways. It was with a heavy heart that I chose to become a medical journalist instead.

And so back to the interview with Dr. Heyman. We had an interesting discussion about the concept of medical tourism:

You may listen to our conversation here, or read my summary below.

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Dr. Val: Is medical tourism about people coming to the U.S. for care, or about patients leaving the U.S. to get more affordable care elsewhere?

Dr. Heyman: Historically, medical tourism has been about patients coming to the United States to get high quality care. Nowadays, people are realizing that there are wonderful places overseas where they can seek treatment. If they don’t have a very exotic illness, or require a highly specialized procedure, they can get appropriate care overseas. Hip replacements are a good example of a standard procedure that can be performed without too much difficulty. It wouldn’t be as much of a draw for patients who need hip replacements to come to the U.S. Read more »

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I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

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