Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Would You Like Fries With That? - The Fast Food Model for the Corporate Physician

Allegations that suggest the continuing degradation of the professionalism of employed physicians just appeared in the Palm Beach (FL) Post.  A former physician employee of Solantic Urgent Care, a for-profit chain of urgent care clinics, described to state investigators the life of employed physicians there.

Putting Revenue First

Physicians answered to managers who put revenue first:
Thirty-something business graduates lacking in any medical training supervised the clinics' doctors and were encouraged to maintain an adversarial relationship with them, Prokes said.

Those clinic managers' raises and bonuses depended on their achieving ambitious goals for patient visits, labor and overhead costs, per-patient revenues and customer satisfaction.

Prokes said clinic manager turnover was high, and a succession of managers wrote him up for a variety of infractions: arriving five minutes late, failing to suggest Solantic's pharmacy at three points of contact and suggesting a patient might want to return later, when there would be less of a wait.

As is common elsewhere, there was pressure to see as many patients as possible:
Prokes told state investigators that he found the atmosphere increasingly untenable, as he was pressed to see 70 to 90 patients each day.

'They actually told us not to sit down for 14-hour shifts,' Prokes told state investigators. '[Former Solantic CEO Rick] (Scott) does not care about the quality of medicine. They care about how fast you see people.'

A Business Model from the Fast-Food Industry

A former Solantic executive admitted that the business model came straight from the fast-food industry:
[Former Solantic Chief Operating Officer Shaun] Ginter said the retail concept that he, Scott, and then-CEO Karen Bowling created drew on lessons from the fast food and other retail industries. Counters were built at standing height, for example, because it speeded workflow, he said.

'The culture, the workflow, were all streamlined for a more efficient delivery, a more efficient method of care,' said Ginter, who had previously managed drug stores with small clinics within. 'The name of the game is keeping your costs tight, and Rick, Karen and myself were very focused on keeping costs down.'

Up-Selling Unneeded Services

Just as in the fast food industry, the help was expected to up-sell. In particular, Dr Prokes charged that physicians were strongly pushed to suggest services patients did not need, but that brought in more revenue:
Doctors were monitored with cameras in the clinics' common areas, [Dr Randy] Prokes told investigators. Staff were expected to suggest extras, including vitamins and probiotics, and a colon cancer screening test considered unreliable and outdated by CDC officials.

The Background: Rick Scott, Columbia/HCA, and the State of Florida

Note that Rick Scott just sold Solantic LLC to private equity group Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, per the Jacksonville (FL) Business Journal. Note further that Scott was the former CEO of Columbia/ HCA, which ultimately paid a huge fine for fraudulant practices:
John Schilling was working as reimbursement supervisor for Columbia/HCA's Southwest Florida division, where he oversaw Medicare and Medicaid compliance and the cost reporting.

'Before HCA, when it was just Columbia, the CEOs of the hospitals were making up to 100 percent of their salaries as a bonus; the CFOs made 50 percent. Even some of the directors were making 25 percent bonuses,' Schilling said.

It drove a do-anything-to-make-the-numbers mentality, he said. Schilling now runs a firm called Ethics Solutions, where he helps potential whistleblowers.

'There were no incentives for being in compliance with Medicare and Medicaid rules,' Schilling said. 'It was about, how are we going to make it profitable, and if we meet our goals, it means we get our bonuses.'

He found that the hospitals in his area kept two sets of books. The one for Medicare auditors showed inflated costs, so that hospitals could justify higher reimbursement rates to take advantage of a funding formula that has since changed.

The hospitals also kept 'real' books with different numbers. The discovery put him in an ethical bind, he said. When he took his concerns to a supervisor, he was told not to rock the boat. Ultimately, his whistleblower lawsuit proved among the most damaging to his employer, which eventually paid $1.7 billion to the federal government to settle criminal fraud and abuse charges.

Scott, who wanted to fight the charges rather than settle, was never charged, and said he was unaware of what his managers had been doing.

After Scott left Columbia / HCA, he used the riches he acquired as its hired executive to help fund an ultimately successful campaign for the governorship of Florida, his current office. (See posts here and here.)


We have previously posted, most recently here, about how physicians are increasingly becoming employees of for-profit corporations. We have discussed other instances in which such corporations are appearing to pressure physicians to provide "care" to patients in such a manner as to increase corporate revenue, whether or not it is good for patients. We noted that when insurance companies hire physicians, they are likely to push them into providing less care across the board, since the insurers are paid per patient, not for what is done to each patient. When hospitals, hospital systems, and other entities that directly provide care hire physicians, they are likely to push them into channeling patients to get tests, drugs, and procedures for which the corporations are most highly paid.

In this current case, the allegations fit the latter pattern. Furthermore, At least one former executive admitted that "the name of your game is keeping your costs tight," not providing the best patient care.

There is more and more evidence that doctors who provide direct patient care as employees of for-profit corporations, and possibly other large organizations, are being increasingly pushed to put corporate revenue ahead of their patients' best interests. It should be obvious that this is unethical. Doctors swear oaths to put their patients' interests first.

Patients should be extremely wary of the care provided by doctors who are employed by large organizations. Doctors should be extremely wary of working for such organizations to provide direct patient care.

Below, I have repeated my humble suggestions from last week, with some additions, for

What Is to Be Done?

- Find out if their physicians are employed, and if so, by whom.
- Find out what incentives their physicians have, if employed, to recommend more or less care of certain types.
- Find out whether other aspects of the physicians' employment arrangements, e.g., contractual confidentiality clauses, could affect his or her relationships with patients
- Avoid doctors employed by for-profit companies who have incentives to provide more or less care than what may be best for the patient

- Do not accept any employment offer or contract which has incentives to provide more or less care than is best for individual patients
- Who are already employed disclose to their patients such employment, and any incentives it may provide to provide more or less care
- Urge professional societies, and certifying and accrediting organizations to further investigate threats to physicians' professionalism arising from employment, and develop strategies to mitigate such threats

- Rapidly investigate the extent that for-profit companies whose revenues depend on physicians' decisions are hiring physicians to take care of patients, and the incentives and influences that these companies use to affect physicians' decisions
- Develop regulations that force disclosure of all such employment and relevant incentives and influences
- Consider further regulation of organizations that so employ physicians
- Consider whether such "commercial practice of medicine" ought to be once again banned.

ADDENDUM (12 July, 2011) -  See also this related post on KevinMD.


Unknown said...

Another suggestion to patients is to ask a lot of questions and do your homework. Whether we like it or not, this post shows that there are health systems out there that are not working for the greater good. We must be prepared. Know the cost of procedures and treatments and what alternatives there are. I found this helpful in shaping my questions: http://whatstherealcost.org/video.php?post=five-questions

Anonymous said...

This is eerie. I first heard the comparison of medicine to fast food in 2002 from a hospital CEO. Same CEO said he liked complications because he could bill for them.