We’ve come to a sorry pass in American medicine when physicians are willing to spend a lot of money to attend conferences—not to learn how to become better physicians, but to find a way out of the pit of clinical practice.
Few of us have the charisma (or chutzpah) to make a living in medical show business, like Sanjay Gupta or Mehmet Oz. But apparently any physician today can be clever enough to secure a comfortable nonclinical niche where the specter of The Joint Commission never lurks.
I came home recently to find a glossy brochure in my mailbox, inviting me (for a mere $1,295) to attend a two-day meeting with the principal aim to help me stop taking care of patients. This conference promised contact with recruiters and employers who would put me out of my misery as a clinical physician. In case I didn’t know I was miserable, the brochure pointed out that switching to a non-clinical career has “more financial potential” than clinical medicine. It suggested sympathetically that I might be among the many physicians who don’t enjoy going to work any more, and want to eliminate the “stress and time commitments” of patient care.
People in Washington DC would do well to take a good look at this brochure, just in case they were wondering why Medicare patients have trouble finding doctors. The panel of experts speaking at the conference includes a host of former internists and family physicians, all happy to explain how they fled the tiresome business of seeing patients for their new careers as consultants, entrepreneurs, business executives, motivational speakers, and expert witnesses. One emergency physician on the expert panel left the ER to become a “Master Sherpa Coach”, whatever that is.
It’s no wonder why so many physicians are getting progressively unhappier. In the past ten years, inflation-adjusted physician fees have declined by 25%, and at present aren’t even keeping pace with inflation. The non-elected Independent Payment Advisory Board, created by the Affordable Care Act, has the sweeping power to mandate even more pay cuts to physicians, and doesn’t even include a practicing doctor among its members. The overhead costs of running a medical practice continue to rise, and there is no relief in sight to reduce the crippling cost of malpractice insurance in many states. Documentation requirements (thanks to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and The Joint Commission) and penalties for noncompliance grow more threatening every year.
Why wouldn’t an enterprising physician look for a way out of this trap?
A few minutes browsing the Internet will convince you that many physicians are looking for a lucrative exit from clinical medicine via social media. Some—like Kevin Pho, the proprietor of the KevinMD website—keep at least a foot in the door of clinical practice. Other physicians leave patient care entirely to give social media their undivided attention. Pam Yoder, an ob-gyn physician, now works full time for HealthTap, a recently launched website that relies on the uncompensated time and good will of other physicians to answer patients’ questions on line. Daniel Palestrant quit surgical residency in Boston after three years to found Sermo, an online forum for physician-only chat and opinion exchange.
Many physicians are going back to school for MBA degrees, hoping to land better jobs as pharmaceutical executives, department chairs, or government regulators. Business schools have been quick to establish weekend programs and online courses geared toward the MD market. Even medical students are flocking to nonclinical careers. The number of joint MD/MBA programs has mushroomed from 33 in 2001 to over 60 today, and they graduate at least 500 students each year. Many medical schools are offering dual programs in medical informatics, biomedical engineering, or public health, appealing to the many medical students who are losing confidence in patient care as a promising future.
If you’re a graduating resident in anesthesiology and don’t have an MBA already, the University of Washington’s anesthesiology department will be happy to help you. Their new “faculty fellowships” will allow you to work part-time as a clinical attending while you pursue that MBA, or perhaps a certificate in “Quality and Safety”. The department’s avowed goal is for a trainee to become “both a content expert and a thought leader”.
A “thought leader”? That’s just what we need: more people with scant experience outside the academic bubble, telling the rest of us what to do and how to do it. Even the term “thought leader” sounds as though it originated in a propaganda bureau whose purpose is to tell a docile (or downtrodden) public what to think.
I’m quite sure that the new “thought leaders” will be well versed in the jargon of accountable care organizations, SCIP guidelines, evidence-based medicine, and the rest of the buzzwords that dominate the conversation about health care. But while they’re sitting around talking about health care and figuring out where to lead our thoughts next, who’s going to be left to take care of the patients?
Someone has to ask the question: If you didn’t want to take care of sick people, why did you become a physician? Health care can’t be an abstract idea. Certainly health care delivery is a “macro” concept, but health care is delivered one patient at a time. By all accounts, the shortage of physicians in the U.S. is growing more severe as the population ages. Midlevel practitioners play an essential part in health care delivery, but patients want to see a doctor–not a “doctor of nursing”–when critical decisions must be made. Does anyone seriously think patients care about the musings of a “thought leader” when what they need is ready access to clinically experienced physicians?
There’s another question, too. Is medical education a public good or a private possession? When physicians incur $200,000 or more in debt acquiring a medical education, it’s easy to see how they would feel that the education is theirs to do with as they please. Yet the American taxpayer contributes to the education of physicians by funding state universities and medical schools, and by funding resident training with Medicare dollars. Aren’t American citizens entitled to service in return for the billions that they spend each year on medical training? How would they react if they knew that so many of the doctors they paid to train are abandoning clinical practice if they possibly can?
It’s easy to see how nonclinical careers can be tempting. If someone offered me a decent salary tomorrow to become a columnist, or a substantial advance to write a book, would I keep on practicing anesthesiology? Would I continue to risk malpractice litigation from a poor outcome on a high-risk patient? Would any of us choose to face exposure to VRE, MRSA, tuberculosis, and HIV? Or deal with the payment denials from Medicare and insurance companies? Or read the memos from administrators and bureaucrats who create senseless new rules all the time?
If there is a sure indicator that American health care is heading down the wrong track, it’s the fact that current policies are driving physicians out of patient care. When physicians are willing to pay good money to attend seminars on how to land nonclinical jobs, then I think we can all agree that Washington’s health care policies are incentivizing physicians in exactly the wrong way—to abandon patient care. I seriously doubt that’s what Americans really want, and I’m certain that when children dream of becoming doctors they’re not imagining a desk job, even in a corner office.
It is crazy, isn’t it? Stakeholders tell their thought leaders how to behave, then pay them handsomely to tell the rest of their collegial rubes which buttons to click on an EMR to maximize governement payments, all in the name of “quality.”
Sadly, it looks like it might get worse before it gets better.
As the founder of both http://FreelanceMD.com and http://MedicalSpaMD.com I can attest to the fact that you’re not only exactly on point, but that the trend is increasing. Many physicians aren’t making these decisions based exclusively on compensation, but career satisfaction and the feeling that they’re working in an assembly line. Many physicians just want to have more control of their career and lifestyle.
Very timely article. And unfortunately very true. Our profession has become a starting point for a new revolution that will never in my lifetime help patients. From the death of the solo practitioner to the pen pushers who decide what is best to get our quarterly numbers up the revolution to work outside of patient care has grown .
If physicians, who are now terrified of saying anything to either patients or administrators, continue on this way, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for letting these ridiculous rules continue. In England physicians have banded together to say enough is enough. We want our profession back. We are going to have to do the same . Unfortunately the next step on this horrible storyline will be to pit the physicians against each other. Look out for the Specialists versus Primary Care trumped up war to begin in the next few years
Thanks for your article. I hope it falls on the right eyes.
Very good article. I wish Obama and Sebelius would read this and learn from it. But I doubt that. Great job.
Yes, my spouse just quit after 28 years as a Family Practice physician. He is teaching at a local college now. Same issues.
This is right on the money. I continue to be amazed at how the situation continues to deteriorate in terms of bureaucratic burdens, rules, regulations, coding requirements, denied payments, frustration, loss of independence, time spent on more paperwork, less time for patients. Sorry, didn’t mean to go on, but looking back it seems I’ve used all the latest “catch phrases” that are currently out there describing the state of affairs.
When the system makes it progressively more difficult for us to do our jobs properly, that’s when physicians will look for other options. Unfortunately, there is little appetite for unionization. Sadly, this is probably the only option if we are to ever regain some level of control over the current mess.
As a practicing physician watching the system fail more and more and get more expensive – had to do something about it. So we created SnapHealth.com – returning healthcare to old fashioned doctor and patient. Join the revolution against the wrong moves in healthcare — join us on snaphealth.com
You make a good point. I have been hearing from so many physicians every day since the publication of my book, Careers Beyond Clinical Medicine, just a few weeks ago. You are right, there are more doctors who want to change their patient care situations than one would expect.
I think that it is not a decision that physicians take lightly. Given the opportunities available for doctors, and the genuine attitudes of the doctors I have been hearing from, I think that physicians who make this transition will result in positive changes in health care.
I largely agreed with what you wrote, save for the part about how physicians educated and trained in the US owing the general public due to their investment in my education. Last time I checked, I’ll be paying back every last cent that I borrowed at an interest rate more than double what it should be. I don’t feel like I owe the public a debt of gratitude for financing my education, if anything, I feel animosity toward the feds for gouging me on interest rates that I have to pay due to the affordable care act making it impossible for private institutions to take on my student debt. Also, stating that physicians owe the public due to public money being spent on our education in the form of loans implies that they have a right to our services…a fair point if they paid for everything, but they do not. If my education was free thanks to public money, then you may have a point, but as long as we pay for our schooling ourselves, no one but us should have a say in what we choose to do with our education. If the public has a say in what we choose to do with our medical education, then it should also have a say in the careers of everyone who has to take a student loan to finance their higher education; let’s see how the lawyers like it when people go to them with complex legal issues and then once everything is sorted out, refuse to pay due to having a percieved right to their services.
Sadly, what you said is very true. many doctors and health care professionals are not satisfied with their jobs and are most willing to quit. According to a survery, US will soon see a shortage of doctors.