The Big Squeeze 20. June 2008 William Davis (5) Some colleagues of mine brought this scary phenomenon to my attention last evening.As insurance and Medicare reimbursement to doctors and hospitals fall (Medicare is enacting a series of substantial cuts, which will be followed by the private health insurers), you would expect the use of hospital procedures to drop. Makes sense, right? Less money paid per procedure, less incentive to do them. Unfortunately, that's not how it's playing out in the real world. Your neighborhood interventional cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon is accustomed to a level of income and lifestyle. That lifestyle is now threatened by shrinking reimbursement. True to the Law of Unintended Consequences, rather than reducing use of procedures, diminishing procedural fees are prompting a good number of practitioners to do more. In other words, if each heart catheterization pays less, why not do more of them, along with more stents, pacemakers, defibrillators, and the like? If four heart catheterizations per day pays less, why not do five to make up the difference? Voila! Income protected. Of course, it comes at the cost of more work. But I will give one thing to my colleageus: They are a generally hard-working bunch who rarely balk at 12-16 hours days in the hospital.How do you do more procedures? Easy. Just lower the bar on who to do a procedure on. Use more aggressive criteria for pacemaker implantation. Interpret the always-fuzzy nuclear stress tests weighed more towards abnormal. Use scare tactics: "You never know--that chest pain could be the last warning you're going to have!" Because the criteria for performing procedures is "soft" in the real world, it is easy to bend the criteria any way you want. It's too early to measure the full impact of this unintended consequence of reduced reimbursement. But don't allow yourself to become a casualty in the reimbursement war. Remain vigilant. Recognize that, despite the fuzziness at the edges, there are still rational reasons for performing heart procedures. Always be armed with information and the right questions. Never submit unquestioningly or without satisfactory answers to your questions.