The behavior of US physicians has been changed by the commercialization of medical care, and this too has increased costs. US medical practice has traditionally relied on fee-for-service, which has always given it some of the attributes and incentives of a business. However, the American Medical Association (AMA) maintained for many years that medical practice was a profession, not a business. The AMA's ethical guidelines therefore advised physicians to limit their income to reasonable earnings from the care of patients, and to refrain from advertising and from entering financial arrangements with drug and device manufacturers. Those restrictions were lifted after the US Supreme Court decided in 1975 that lawyers, and by extension members of other professions, including physicians, are engaged in interstate commerce and therefore must be subject to antitrust law (from which they had largely been exempt).(1)
This decision had an enormous effect on the medical profession, but its consequences have received relatively little public attention. Although the courts did not initiate the commercialization of medicine, they certainly accelerated it and gave it legal justification. In 1980, after medical organizations lost some costly antitrust trials, in which they were accused of such offenses as limiting doctor fees or denying staff privileges, the AMA changed its ethical guidelines, declaring medicine to be both a business and a profession. This lowered the AMA's barriers to the commercialization of medical practice, allowing physicians to participate in any legal profit-making business arrangement that did not harm patients.
Nearly a half-century ago, Stanford economics professor Kenneth Arrow, later a Nobel laureate, convincingly argued that medical care cannot conform to market laws because patients are not ordinary consumers and doctors are not ordinary vendors. He said that sick or injured patients must rely on physicians in ways fundamentally different from the price-driven relation between buyers and sellers in an ordinary market. This argument implied that, contrary to the assumptions of antitrust law, market competition among physicians cannot be expected to lower medical prices. And since physicians influence decisions to use medical services far more than patients do, the volume and types of services provided to patients—and hence total health costs—need to be controlled by forces other than the market, such as professional standards and government regulation. But Arrow's argument was largely ignored in the rush to exploit health care for commercial purposes that ensued after the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.(2)
Writing about the decline of physicians' professionalism in 2007 [ Relman AS. Medical professionalism in a commercialized health care market. JAMA 2007; 298: 2668-2670. [link here) ], Dr Relman had briefly alluded to the effect of the 1975 Supreme Court decision, (see our post here):
The law also has played a major role in the decline of medical professionalism. The 1975 Supreme Court ruling that the professions were not protected from anti-trust law undermined the traditional restraint that medical professional societies had always placed on the commercial behavior of physicians, such as advertising and investing in the products they prescribe or facilities they recommend. Having lost some initial legal battles and fearing the financial costs of losing more, organized medicine now hesitates to require physicians to behave differently from business people. It asks only that physicians' business activities should be legal, disclosed to patients, and not inconsistent with patients' interests. Until forced by anti-trust concerns to change its ethical code in 1980, the American Medical Association had held that 'in the practice of medicine a physician should limit the source of his professional income to medical services actually rendered by him, or under his supervision, to his patients' and that 'the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade.' These sentiments reflecting the spirit of professionalism are now gone.
It seems to me that Dr Relman has elucidated one of the "missing links" that help explain the current sorry state of physicians' core values, and the broader continuing health care crisis. I am amazed that this bit of history seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. Dr Relman did write about it before 2007, but in publications that few physicians and other health care professionals were likely to see. Other than Dr Relman, almost no one writing in the medical and health care literature seems to have interest in this issue. (It has been discussed in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, and the Stanford Law Review by M. Gregg Bloche, but these unfortunately also could have easily been missed by nearly all physicians and health care professionals.) So we have another example of the anechoic effect.
Yet in my humble opinion, every physician and health care professional ought to know that the profession once foreswore the commercialization of medical practice, but gave up on its ability to police its own conflicts of interest after the US Supreme Court decided that professionals are subject to anti-trust law.
But knowing this important bit of history raises more questions than it answers:
- The Supreme Court decision apparently involved interpretation of law, not the constitution. Therefore, why didn't organized medicine pursue a change in the law that would allow physicians to continue to enforce their traditional professional values?
- The Supreme Court decision was primarily directed at lawyers, not physicians. Since the decision, to my knowledge, the law profession has maintained strict rules about conflicts of interest. (For example, no legal CME is sponsored by corporations whose products they seek to have the attendees favor.) Why did the decision wreck physicians' but not lawyers' abilities to regulate their own conflicts of interest?
- The Supreme Court decision only affects US law. Why have physicians in other countries also abandoned their traditional values about commercial entanglements?
- Why did this application of US antitrust law have such significant effects during an era when antitrust enforcement in health care was generally declining? (Insurance companies and hospitals that dominate local markets have not feared antitrust enforcement.)
- Why did only Dr Relman and Prof Bloche seem to care about this up to now?
Inquiring minds want to know.... And answering these questions might bring us back on the path of true medical professionalism.
Hat tip to Merrill Goozner in the GoozNews blog.
References (from Relman)
1. Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar, 421 U.S. 773 (1975).
2. Kenneth J. Arrow, "Uncertainty and the Welfare Economics of Medical Care," The American Economic Review, Vol. 53, No. 5 (December 1963).