Monday, December 19, 2011

Hospital Executives - What Will They Think of Next?

Health care organizations are now most often run by people with management, not clinical backgrounds.  It seems like business schools have taught managers to sign on to whatever the latest management fashions are.  So what are the latest fashions in hospital management?  Here are a few hot items.

Retreading Pharmaceutical Representatives

My jaundiced reading of the business news suggests that most executives think that marketing is the most important part of their organizations, and that clever marketing can sell any product or service. For example, the pharmaceutical industry spends about twice as much on marketing as it does on research and development (despite pharma executives' protestations that they run research driven businesses) (see this post). So it should be no surprise that now hospitals are using "hospital representatives" to market referrals to their institutions to doctors.

From last week's USA Today:
n northwest Indiana, Carrie Sota visits five or six doctors' offices every workday as part of her new sales job.

But Sota isn't selling the physicians on a prescription drug or a medical device. She's promoting her hospital — the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Sota, 30, is one of four employees the academic medical center has hired in recent months to make 'sales calls' on physicians in the hope that they will send more patients to the hospital. 'We are trying to build meaningful relationships,' said Sota, who was previously a saleswoman for a small medical device company.

The University of Chicago Medical Center is one of a growing number of hospitals nationwide hiring former drug and device sales reps to visit doctors' offices to persuade them to use their services over competing facilities.

Rather than handing out samples of prescription drugs, the sales reps call on doctors armed with the latest information on how their facility is reducing hospital-acquired infections and improving patient-satisfaction scores.

In visits that can last five to 20 minutes, reps try to win doctors' loyalty by helping them get better times on operating room schedules or easier patient referrals to hospital-based specialists. The sales reps can also carry messages back to the hospital, such as a doctor's request for a new medical device to be available in surgery.

The article suggested a few problems with this approach. First, the point of the marketing is not to improve the match between patients' needs and the services the hospital provides. Rather, it is to generate referrals that have the potential to provide the maximum revenue:
While hospitals have always tried to woo doctors to refer patients to them, the institutions are growing more direct in their efforts. The hospitals mine data to see which doctors have the most profitable, well-insured patients, and then they assign those doctors to a sales rep.

So in particular,
Many of the physician liaisons focus on specialists, who bring in patients for services with the highest profit margins, including orthopedics, cardiac care and cancer care, [Duke University Health System physician liaison manager Christine] Perry said.

Second, the hospital reps have incentives based on revenue, not on value to the patient:
About two-thirds of Tenet's liaisons are former drug and device sales reps, and they can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses if doctors increase their referrals to the hospitals.

Third, across the system, the revenues generated may be much less than the costs incurred, since most of the marketing will only succeed in moving patients from one hospital to another:
Paul Ginsburg, president of the non-partisan Center for Studying Health System Change, said, 'When you look at the health system, this is a waste of resources. It's a zero-sum game.'

He added: 'The net results of changing physician-referral patterns is that one hospital gains at a cost of others, and all the hospitals burn resources to pay (sales)people who take up the doctor's time.'

Of course, the reps could succeed in persuading doctors to refer patients to specific hospitals for services the doctors originally did not think the patients needed. That would be good were the patients to need those services, but bad if they were not.
Fourth, we have discussed (for example, here and here) how pharmaceutical representatives use sophisticated psychological and emotional manipulation, despite claims that all they do is provide unbiased information and educational, to influence physicians to prescribe drugs. Again, this may result in patients getting drugs whose benefits do not outweigh their harms. It is possible that hospital representatives will do something similar:
'These people are really good and really assertive and very sophisticated,' said Stephen Newman, Tenet's chief operating officer.

Unbundling Payments

The airlines decided a while ago that they could make more money by charging passengers for each checked bag, and even for those little meals on plastic trays. It looks like hospital executives have discovered a new way to unbundle.

As reported last month by the St Louis Post-Dispatch, hospitals have begun charging often hefty "facility fees" for patients seen as outpatients in hospital clinics or hospital owned practices, even for very minor procedures or just office visits, and even for Medicare patients. (Private physicians who see patients in their own offices cannot charge such fees to Medicare patients, and most private insurance companies will not cover such fees.):
A few weeks after Allison Zaromb took her 4-year-old son Meir to see a dermatologist in an outpatient office at the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center campus, she received separate bills from the doctor and the hospital.

The cost for a 3-minute procedure to treat Meir's warts totaled $538, which included a $220 bill for physician services - and a separate bill for a $318 hospital 'facility fee.'

Zaromb, a periodontist who lives in University City, is now suing SSM Health Care Corp. and Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in a proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of other patients

More generally,
With the proliferation of hospital-owned outpatient centers and hospital-owned physician practices, hospital 'facility fees' have become increasingly common. Such hospital facility fees often involve greater dollar amounts than the fees charged by physicians.

Technically, it all appears to be legal:
Under federal regulations, health systems are permitted to charge a hospital facility fee for an outpatient service if it's done in a clinic that is 'hospital-based' - meaning that the clinic is owned and operated as part of a hospital or health system, regardless of whether the clinic is physically located on the hospital grounds.

This technique does seem to be a way to increase revenue. But one person's revenue is another person's cost, so it also seems to be a great way to further increase the already high cost of US health care. It is not obvious, however, that these increased costs will lead to increased quality of care or value for the patient:
'From a consumer's perspective, when you go see your doctor, you go see your doctor - whether it's in an office inside a larger hospital complex or right across the street,' [Zaromb's lawyer John] Phillips said. 'The doctor's practice remains the same. ... They're making the doctor's office a ‘hospital-based' clinic for one reason: to make money by charging a facility fee, not to improve consumer service.'

Negotiating the Costs of Medical Devices

One of the favorite topics on Health Care Renewal, at least before we found even more outrageous subjects, was the stratospheric cost of medical devices. For example, look at posts from 2005 here, here, here, and here. So last month we found out that hospital executives have come up with a revolutionary idea to combat the high cost of devices. They will actually try to see what prices the device companies charge other hospitals, and then negotiate the prices down, as Reuters reported as big news in late November:
Implantable devices make up a sizable chunk of typical hospital budgets, and administrators are devising new ways to limit that cost as they brace for cuts to government reimbursement and treat more patients who can't pay for care.

That means methodically working through each category of device, from heart valve replacements and stents to spinal products, to see where they can negotiate lower prices. It also means creating databases of shared information on pricing between hospitals.

Imagine that! Of course, the notion that buyers ought to bargain with sellers to get the best price goes back a few years. However, only in 2011 did it apparently occur to hospital executives that they ought to negotiate the prices of one their most expensive purchases. This suggests that there has been something profoundly wrong with the basic assumptions underlying the commonly accepted wisdom that making the health care system more of a market will lead to more financially efficient care. 


In 1988, Alain Enthoven advocated in Theory and Practice of Managed Competition in Health Care Finance, a book published in the Netherlands, that to decrease health care costs it would be necessary to break up the "physicians' guild" and replace leadership by clinicians with leadership by managers (see 2006 post here). Thus from 1983 to 2000, the number of managers working in the US health care system grew 726%, while the number of physicians grew 39%, so the manager/physician ratio went from roughly one to six to one to one (see 2005 post here). Health care went from being controlled by clinicians to controlled by a growing volume of managers.  Most of these managers were generic, in that they had little if any knowledge of, experience in, or sympathy to the values of health care. These generic managers have used the same techniques advocated for the management of supermarkets or automobile manufacturers to manage health care organizations, despite all the obvious differences in context, goals, values, and people involved.

So these generic managers have brought us such "innovations" as the "hospital (marketing) representative," and the "facility fee" for outpatient visits, but only thought to negotiate device prices in 2011. But that is why we pay them the big bucks.

How many more arguments do we need that health care organizations ought to be lead by people who understand the health care context, share its core values, and are accountable for how these organizations affect patients' and the public's health?


Hog Trough Pandemic said...

"How many more arguments do we need that health care organizations ought to be lead by people who understand the health care context, share its core values, and are accountable for how these organizations affect patients' and the public's health?"

This (or similar) is said frequently here, and I absolutely agree with it, in principal.

However, are we not well beyond correcting the problem this way? It's not an isolated case, an epidemic impacting many lives and livlihoods.

A hog trough pandemic can not be contained one case at a time over years. The infection will kill the community far faster than that.

This takes far greater action.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Anonymous -

What greater action would you propose?

My suggestion above applies to all health care organizations, e.g., hospitals, academic medical centers, and hospital systems; pharmaceutical, biotechnology and device companies; insurance companies and health maintenance organizations; government agencies; professional societies, accrediting organizations, health care charities, patient advocacy organizations; etc. It was not meant to only apply to the organizations mentioned in the post.

However, unless we can make many people more aware of this problem, even changes at a few individual organizations are unlikely.

By the way, I would also favor breaking up market dominant and too big to fail organizations. There is no proof that larger organizations have any positive effects, but they do raise prices, hire more managers, and enrich more executives.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Hog Trough Pandemic -

Sorry. My comment above was in reply to you, not to "anonymous." My mistake.

Hog Trough Pandemic said...

How long might it take for a turnover for positions of power from the self serving to the patient serving one executive at a time? It is just not a quick enough solution to keep the system from collapsing.

I think it is too late for wishing that things will change simply because we kick up a fuss. The problem is that the money in healthcare attracts the abuse. Its the money in the hog trough that is the problem and it needs to be reduced, and reduced a lot all the way across the board.

Im actually sorry they are going to pass the doc fix again. I say chop all the reimbursements for every type of service, not just docs. Too little too late will not make the change we need now.

Want the hogs to go elsewhere? Remove the excess food. Take away the party trays and the partiers go elsewhere.

It must be done, and we probably all have to accept that it will cause problems for a while.

And monopolistic providers being felled by speaking out? The executives and boards are immune. They care not one wink while the trough is full and the taps are wide open flowing with the milk and honey of others.

Just look at the outpouring of opinion in Wednesday's Pittsburgh paper available at

As one of the letter writers says, "It's beyond time for decisive action by -- per Paul O'Neill's thoughtful suggestions -- the Pennsylvania attorney general (or her deputy), the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and our state legislators, who have rattled sabers, held hearings and written legislation ... but so far have produced no results."

Kevin said...

The other option is to hire Accretive Health to strong arm patients into paying upfront for emergency services!

I wonder your take on the Fairview/Accretive situation in Minnesota?