A dirty little secret

Here's a dirty little secret many people don't know about.

If I implant a stent, I might get paid somewhere around $2000 for the heart catheterization, stent implantation, femoral artery closure device, hospitalization charges. That's not too bad.

But what if I'd like more? What if I'd like to squeeze this unsuspecting patient for more, or actually his/her insurance company?

Easy: Add on complex procedures to the basic procedure that yield more professional charges. For instance, I could perform laser angioplasty, a procedure that adds another couple thousand dollars. I might pull out the old rotational atherectomy device, a high-speed diamond tipped drill that also adds substantial professional charges. I might also use the intracoronary ultrasound device, an otherwise helpful device, but I might pull it out to use on everybody.

With the exception of ultrasound, all the "add-on" procedures were more popular in the early and mid-1990s--before they were shown in clinical studies to provide no advantage, perhaps even add to procedural risks.

Thus, a patient might undergo a heart catheterization, balloon angioplasty with stent implantation into the proximal left anterior descending coronary artery (LAD), followed by laser angioplasty of the mid-LAD, followed by intracoronary ultrasound of the vessel. Next, rotational atherectomy of the circumflex, followed by stent and ultrasound. Total charges for this 2-3 hour procedure? Somewhere around $8000 to the cardiologist. Of course, hospital charges are far more.

Ironically, patients are invariably impressed. Hearing that they went through all sort of high-tech procedures makes them grateful for receiving the benefits of the skills of their cardiologist. Of course, they would like have done as well with a far simpler procedure. Perhaps they didn't need the procedure at all.

If the excessive use of procedures and devices fails to benefit patients, why don't hospitals discourage it? Two reasons: 1) It's difficult to legislate or regulate decisions made on judgement, which can be a tough issue with many fuzzy edges, and 2) hospitals made oodles more money from the practice.

If you have a salesman in your new car lot and he outsells all his colleagues by 30-50% and makes you a couple hundred thousand a month more in sales. You've watched him at work and he's clearly good at it. But you suspect that he pushes the envelope of propriety frequently--badgering customers, add rustproofing to a little grandmother's car that will be driven 3000 miles a year, selling cars for prices far above what they would have sold for had the customer bargained more vigorously.
do you put a stop to it at the risk of pushing your star salesman away? Few would.

Only a minority of my colleagues are guilty of this despicable practice. I only know of a few who openly do it. Hopefully, you're not among their patients.