Is your doctor a hospital employee?

There's a disturbing trend that's growing--silently but rapidly.

In Milwaukee, three hospital systems compete for the local health care dollar. To gain more control over revenues and the routing of patients, the hospitals are aggressively hiring physicians to work for them. I've witnessed many of my cardiology colleagues, primary care doctors, and a substantial number of procedural specialists enticed by the offers made by hospital employers.

This phenomenon is not unique to Milwaukee but is being used in many, perhaps most, major cities in the U.S.

This means that physicians are employees of the hospital. That way, employee-physicians are obliged to use only the hospital system that employs them. In the old days, your doctor could use any hospital he/she desired, depending on the quality, location, facilities, etc. Now, many physician-employees are given no choice but to use the hospital that pays their salary.

That by itself is not necessarily bad. But combine salary with incentives for bringing in patients for hospitalization and procedures--that the rub. In other words, physician-employees are incentivized to generate more revenue for the system, just as employees in many other industries.

If you're a salesman for an insurance company, your job is to bring in more business. If you're a worker on an auto production line, you're expected to meet certain quotas. These same principles are now being applied to many physicians.

How does this affect you? Well, if your physician--especially procedure-driven specialists like cardiologists, general surgeons, orthopedists, etc.--is a hospital employee, BEWARE! Do you really need that procedure, or is your doctor suggesting you have a procedure because it will add to his track record?

Prevention? In this model of health care, why bother? It certainly doesn't pay for a hospital to keep you well. Then why should your physician-employee?

Be careful who you're dealing with. If your physician is a hospital-employee, don't bet on getting preventive care. It's more likely you're that just a future source of revenue when it's time for your bypass operation, hip replacement, carotid endarterectomy, etc.

What more powerful argument is there for increased self-empowerment and information for health care consumers?