How to Fix Health Care: Four Weeds to Remove

How to Fix Health Care: Four Weeds to Remove

Want tomatoes? The plants need sun, water, soil and air. And you have to
get rid of the weeds — they want the sun, water, soil and air too. As this
winter of our country’s discontent melts into planting season, our
government would do well to take this lesson from the garden. Especially as
it applies to medicine. The doctor is a surprisingly fragile plant, in real
danger of being strangled by a number of aggressive species. Here is a
short field guide to their identification:

RegulationScores of agencies police doctors. Thousands of people make their living
doing it. They give us yearly tasks that doctors, on pain of ending their
careers, absolutely must do: 10-page reappointment forms, written exams,
blood tests, physicals. Every hospital we work in, every HMO we sign up
with does this too. Every year. Every 10 years we have to take our boards
again. And there are yearly federal and state licensures and safety
exams, fire exams, infection-control exams, malpractice-insurance exams,
queries about crimes we’re assumed to have committed and disabilities we
must prove we have not developed.

Of course we need to know that doctors are healthy and competent. But the
system is redundant and takes up way too much of our time — and many doctors believe it’s largely for the benefit of the regulators themselves.
A unified federal credentialing agency could pull those weeds right out and
leave the country with 5% to 10% more doctoring at almost no cost.
See the world’s most influential people in the 2009 TIME 100.
MalpracticeFrom where we sit , there is little or no correlation between doing bad stuff and getting sued. We also observe
that none of the countries whose medical systems are held up to us as better than ours has any malpractice system at all. And the cost of defensive medicine is enormous — much higher than published estimates.

We’re also much less likely to do charity work when we can lose our homes
in the process. This is a serious problem for the uninsured. Most
doctors are pretty decent folk who actually like what they have spent their
lives learning to do, and they wouldn’t mind doing some free work. As a
group, though, we tend to be quite risk averse. We worry about the downside — it’s where we live. Our insurance premiums can be crushing: it’s
$240,000 a year for a neurosurgeon in New York now. One way or another,
it’s an expense that gets passed down to all. Can our country afford this
luxury at this time Want more medical care for less money Get the lawyers
out of our garden, and find a better way to sanction bad practices without
damaging everyone.

The Medical-Billing IndustryIt costs a typical doctor about 10%, right off the top, to collect
fees from the HMOs and other insurance companies he or she has to deal with.
This is due to the ultra-complex set of rules and regulations those
companies have established to “control costs” and the billing staffs we have to hire to
deal with them. This money does nothing for patients; it’s a health-care
expense that produces no health care. It could easily be eliminated with
simple, intelligent, centralized payment rules. The result would be at least
5% more care for the money.

Computerizing EverythingIt’s a complex topic that boils down to this: If we who do the medicine
thought more computers would save us money, we’d buy them ourselves. In
fact, sometimes we do. But the federal mandate to computerize and centrally
connect the entire country’s medical records has little chance of saving
money for anyone except the lucky insiders who sell the computers, software
and support. Aside from their costs to us, electronic records are time-consuming — a constant distraction from patient care. They also put doctors
on a slippery ethical slope; it’s pretty easy to bill more for the same
services with a good EMR program. They are a dangerous weed being advertised
as fertilizer.

There are problems: the byzantine system of Continuing Medical Education,
medical advertising, the HMOs themselves and our top-heavy system of
hospital administration, to name a few. More on these during growing season.

Read “The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.”