Primary care physicians are a patient’s guide to a bewildering array of technology and specialists. If you require a specific diagnostic test or consultation with a specialist, your primary care physician will help you navigate through the maze, choosing the path that is best for you. He or she will order a chest x-ray for a cough and fever, provide vaccines to prevent flu or pneumococcal pneumonia, perform an annual physical. If you require hospitalization, your primary care physician will admit you. He or she will order diagnostic tests like MRI’s, ultrasounds, x-rays, and blood testing, usually performed in the hospital or a hospital-owned facility. If you require the services of a gastroenterologist, orthopedist, general surgeon, or neurologist, your primary care physician will refer you to the appropriate specialist.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, at least in principle. In fact, during the first eight decades of the 20th century, it did work that work way for the most part. Your primary care physician acted not just as a provider of healthcare, but as your advocate
, someone who knew you and worked to protect your welfare. Your family doctor often knew your parents, maybe even delivered you at birth, and cared for your children. His children often went to the same schools as your children. He and his family lived in the same town and sometimes went to the same church.
That hardly happens any more. It’s more likely you got the name of your primary care physician from a doctor referral service provided by a hospital. Or you picked a name off a list provided by your health insurer. It’s also common to see one doctor, only to see another a year later. Two, three, or more different primary care physicians over a five-year period are common. Doctors come and go, since physician turnover in clinics and practices has been on the increase for years. Insurance companies frequently force policyholders to change doctors, requiring you to choose from a list.
The end result of this shuffling of primary care is increasing impersonality of the relationship. You probably don’t know your primary care physician outside of the 10-minute interaction you had six months ago. She probably never met your mother and will likely not care for your children. Two years from now, she will likely not be your doctor any more, replaced by someone else who obtains the details of your health from a chart. Your chart is more likely to be electronic, with the details of your health history listed in a checklist. There’s little room to detail the idiosyncrasies and quirks of your unique personality or health profile. Throw into this impersonal equation the fact that many doctors have become scared of patients because of potential for lawsuits, often over the most trivial of issues, or because of an error of oversight or misdiagnosis.
This flawed and impersonal system, though emotionally unsatisfying, can still work if each doctor who assumes a patient’s care maintains the ethic of putting health and welfare above all.
But what if your primary care physician is not just an advocate for your welfare, but is a representative of the hospital
? What if there are hidden, unspoken financial incentives paid to your doctor to direct you to the hospital for diagnostic testing, hospitalization, and referral to specialists? If a headache becomes a $4800 MRI, or chest pain becomes a $4200 nuclear stress test, then a $14,000 heart catheterization, your primary care physician becomes the purveyor of far greater financial opportunity for the hospital. The entire interaction, founded on the proposition that your doctor actually cares about you, collapses in a heap of financially motivated testing and procedures. It appears to work, and you and your family can still obtain access to healthcare. The problem is that you’re likely to get too much of it.
This message has not been lost on the shrewd administrators at hospitals. Take a look at the ranks of primary care physicians who refer patients to some of your local hospitals. It is typical that a hospital system maintains several hundred primary care physicians on their payroll, all of whom are expected to refer patients to the hospital, cardiologists, and other proceduralists. Why so many?
Most primary care physicians today have signed contracts with a hospital. In other words, they are employees
of the hospital. This practice is not unusual: the American Medical Association reported that 4 of 5 primary care physicians are now bound by such employment arrangements across the U.S. In effect, 80% of primary care physicians are legally bound by contract to direct patients to cardiologists who work at hospitals.
On top of contractual obligations, there are financial incentives for the volume of procedures that are generated as a result of referrals. The more procedures generated from an internist’s or family practitioner’s practice, the greater the end-of-year productivity bonus will be, not uncommonly totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Dr. Ted Phillips (not his real name, since he declined to allow me to use it) received a bonus check of $9,437 this year for his “productivity,” defined murkily as the return on specialist referrals. While the bonus may have helped him pay for his son’s college tuition, it clearly was a situation that made him acutely uncomfortable when asked.
Several primary care physicians are also quietly dismissed every year from the ranks of employed physicians for not maintaining a minimum flow of patients into the system.
Another hazardous point of entry: Many patients enter the hospital through the emergency room (ER). A patient in the emergency room is at his or her most vulnerable, seeking help for an urgent complaint and usually willing to accept whatever the ER physician advises. Hospitals know this. That’s why many systems insist that the ER physicians be employees of the hospital, with their practice habits subject to control. A patient goes to the ER with chest pain or breathlessness. The worst thing that can happen from a financial standpoint is for the patient to be evaluated and discharged. For this reason, a growing number of hospitals employ ER physicians, then proceed to legislate practice patterns. Consulting a cardiologist is strongly encouraged, since they generally provide access to the downstream revenue-producing procedures offered in the hospital. That way, what might have been a four hour, $2500 ER visit is converted into a $10,000 to $40,000 hospital stay, even when nothing was wrong in the first place. There are millions of people nationwide who have the hospital bills to prove it after being discharged with a diagnosis of indigestion.
Caveat emptor: Buyer beware.