Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Window on the Unworkable Settings in Which Physicians Practice

The Annals of Internal Medicine just published an important problem that helps explain why our health care crisis is so intractable. (Linzer M, Manwell LB, Williams ES, Bobula JA, Brown RL, Varkey AB et al. Working conditions in primary care: physician reactions and care quality. Ann Intern Med 2009; 151: 28-36. Link here.)

The article arose from the MEMO (Minimizing Error, Maximizing Outcome) study. The study included an initial cross-sectional survey and then longitudinal follow-up of 422 physicians, roughly equal numbers of family practitioners and general internists, in 119 different ambulatory settings in New York City, NY, Chicago, IL, Milwaukee, WI, Madison WI, and smaller towns in WI. The surveys asked physicians about their work-flow and time pressure, the pace of their practice (from calm to chaotic), their ability to control their own work activities, and five aspects of organizational culture (emphasis on quality, emphasis on information and communication, trust, cohesiveness, and alignment of values between physicians and leaders.)

The results showed how bad the practice environment in primary care/ generalist practice has become. Some important points were:

- More than half of the physicians (53.1%) said they needed more time to do physical examinations, and nearly half (47.6%) for follow-up visits.
- Almost half (48.1%) described the pace of their offices as chaotic.
- Substantial majorities of physicians thought their workplaces' organizational cultures were deficient, if not hostile.
- Only 23.7% thought there was a high emphasis on quality.
- Only 28.2% thought there was a high emphasis on communication and information.
- Only 30.6% thought there was a great amount of trust.
- Only 33.9% thought there was high work place cohesiveness
- Only 14.2% thought there was great alignment between the values of leadership and physicians.

So, to summarize, many physicians thought they did not have enough time to take care of each individual patient. Most thought their workplaces were nowhere near calm, and nearly half thought they were chaotic. Few thought that their workplaces emphasized quality or communication and information, or inspired trust or cohesiveness. Very few thought that their leaders' values were aligned with their professional values.

This blog has focused on problems with the leadership and governance of health care organizations. We have discussed leadership that is:
–Autocratic, or “imperial”
–Uninformed about health care context, indifferent to health care values
We have shown that the governance of health care organizations may be:
- Unrepresentative
- Unaccountable
- Opaque
- Not Subject to Ethical Standards
and that such governance facilitates and enables bad leadership.

I submit that the study by Linzer et al suggests how bad leadership can make the settings in which physicians practice unworkable. It may be that some of the time pressure that physicians face is due to the perverse incentives built into their pay schedules (e.g., see this post), and bureaucratic demands of insurers and government agencies. A fast paced and demanding environment is one thing, however, and a chaotic envirnoment is another. What else would explain chaotic work environments other than bad organizational leadership? Futhermore, how could well lead organizations ignore quality, and fail to inspire trust and cohesiveness? How could good leaders inspire four-fifths of the physicians to say the leaders of their organizations did not value what they value?

This article strongly suggests that we cannot fix the health care crisis simply by changing financing mechanisms or money flows. We can only improve health care by improving the leadership and governance of health care organizations, and by rethinking the size and scope of health care organizations. The most crucial part of health care is what goes on between individual health care professionals and individual patients. Yet our system is composed of endlessly enlarging bureaucracies run by self-interested, often clueless, and sometimes dishonest, if not criminal leaders. This must change, unless we want this crisis to get much, much worse.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kudos for this report. Send it to the White House.