Monday, May 21, 2012

The Case of the Vanishing Graduate Medical Education Funds

While primary care falters in the US, those who teach it seem to feel increasingly poverty stricken.  Now it appears that one reason for this is an amazing example of multiple failures of transparency and accountability.  Let me work through it, begging your pardon for a little bit of "inside baseball," medical education style.  The results suggest how we desperately need some medical disciples of Sherlock Holmes.


My personal experience and increasing data suggests that most medical school faculty believe that their teaching is not valued by their institutions because teaching brings in no external funds.  In 2004, Dr Catherine DeAngelis, then the editor of JAMA, wrote "few medical schools provide adequate, if any, reimbursement for teaching time."(1)  (See this 2005 post.)   This seems absurd on its face, since what are medical schools for if it is not to provide teaching. 

However, there is evidence of this mission-hostile behavior.  In 2007, we quoted from a revealing interview with Dr Lee Goldman, Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences at Columbia University,(2) who stated that "taxpayers," faculty who "generate more [money] than they cost," are valued most, and implied that faculty who focus on teaching are regarded as "welfare recipients," who bring in less external funding, and are valued least.  In 2010, we noted the results of a large-scale survey presented by Dr Linda Pololi in which 51% of faculty felt that the administration only valued them for the money that they brought in, and half felt that their institutions did not value teaching.(3)

Yet while faculty seem to believe that educational institutions receive little if any money to pay for teaching, it is not clear why the believe something so counter intuitive, and it is less clear what money actually goes to pay for medical education.

US Government Funding for Graduate Medical Education

However, several recent publications affirm that actually a lot of money goes towards one important form of medical education, yet the specifics of the money flows are shrouded in secrecy.  In the May, 2012, SGIM Forum, Dr Mark Liebow and colleagues summarized some of what is known about federal support of graduate medical education, that is, education of interns, residents, and other house officers.(4)  There are two streams of money that flow from Medicare to US hospitals:
Direct GME (DGME) payments help hospitals pay the salaries of residents, teaching faculty, and support staff. DGME is the product of three numbers: a per resident amount that varies by hospital, adjusted annually for inflation; the number of residents in the hospital (capped for each hospital at 1997 levels); and the fraction of discharges from the hospital that are Medicare beneficiaries. The Indirect Medical Education (IME) payment is a percentage amount added on to each DRG payment. The percentage is calculated via a complex formula (the only US statute containing an exponent!), where the key factor is the ratio of interns/residents to beds (IRB ratio).

These two streams are of considerable size:
Of the $9.2 billion Medicare paid for GME in 2010, $3 billion was for DGME and $6.2 billion for IME. The money is paid to hospitals sponsoring training programs rather than to the training programs or other hospitals where training occurs. While about 1,100 hospitals receive GME payments, 66% goes to the 200 hospitals that have the largest numbers of residents.

So, the 200 largest hospitals get about $2 billion in direct GME money (and presumably about another $4 billion in indirect money). This averages then to about $10 million DGME and $20 million indirect GME per hospital.

Thus, teaching, at least the teaching of interns, residents, and other house-staff does pay, and much more than trivial amounts. (Note that these amounts are not for teaching of medical students, which ought to be supported by other funding streams.)

Why then do faculty think that teaching does not bring in any money?

The GME Money Vanishes

An article by Dr Saima I Chaudhry and colleagues in the American Journal of Medicine begins to explain, although the explanations are found between the lines.(5)

First of all, while the graduate medical education money is paid by the government to the hospitals, the government does not publish what it pays to individual hospitals:
It has been previously reported that the amount of GME funding individual hospitals receive is not publicly reported by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,....

The government also does not hold the hospitals accountable for how they spend this money, nor for the quantity or quality of education they supply in exchange for it.

Remarkably, Chaudhry et al imply that that the people who run graduate medical education teaching programs also may not know how much money their hospitals receive from the government to fund their programs. The introduction to their article noted:
It is unclear how much program directors know about the amount and flow of DME funds to their programs. Program directors' beliefs about the transparency of funding to their programs, or their desire to influence how funds are distributed to them, also are unknown.

The article reported on a survey of internal medicine residency program directors which asked about "their knowledge of D[G]ME funding for their programs, the transparency with which funds are distributed to them, and their desire to influence this disbursement." The researchers sent surveys to 372 member programs, representing 97.1% of all US internal medicine residencies. They got 268 responses, a 72.0% response rate.

The main results were that only 159/268 (59.3%) of program directors had tried to find out how much DGME money their programs received, and of those, only 84 (52.8% of those enquiring, but only 31.3% of all respondents) actually knew how much money their programs got.

Of the 92 program directors who did not even try to discover how much money their programs received, approximately 21% said that "no one would tell me," 21% said that the "information would be inaccurate," 14% said they "don't know who to ask," and 2% were "afraid to ask."


US medical school faculty, especially those in primary care, increasingly feel pressured to perform activities that they perceive brings in money from external sources. They tend to believe that their own teaching somehow does not bring in any money, and that their careers will fail if they do not put more emphasis on other activities that the institution views as more profitable.

However, literally billions of US government dollars go to support the education of house staff, including the salaries of faculty who teach interns and residents, who probably are the majority of physician faculty. Faculty probably do not know this, because the government does not publish the amounts given to individual hospitals, nor demand of the hospitals any accountability for how they spend the money they receive.

Presumably, the top executives of each hospital know how much money the government gives them. Nonetheless, the majority of physician leaders of residency programs are never told these amounts, apparently because their hospital executives kept the amounts secret. Many of those educators who have tried to find out the figures were unsuccessful. Some did not even try to find out based on beliefs that their attempts would be unsuccessful, any amounts they discovered would be inaccurate, the people who knew the amounts were hidden, or that it would be dangerous to their careers to even try.

Thus billions of dollars of money flowing from the government to fund graduate medical education seems to have vanished in an amazing example of widespread deficiencies in accountability and transparency.

There are many people who blame government for many social ills. In this case, one can blame the US Congress for not writing a law that makes the money flows transparent and hospitals accountable for providing good educational value for the money provided. One can also blame the executive branch, particularly the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for not making the money flows and the values received for them transparent.

There are a few people, including this author, who also blame the leadership of health care organizations for many of the problems besetting health care. In this case, one can blame top leadership, presumably CEOs and chief financial officers (CFOs) of hospitals for hiding the amounts of money they receive from Medicare to finance graduate medical education. One can also blame the physician leaders of residency programs for not insisting that they know the true sources of financial support for their programs, obtain budgets that reflect this support, and recognition that their faculty really do bring in external funds for their teaching of house staff (and are thus valuable "taxpayers" in Dr Goldman's parlance.)

It is amazing that such amounts of money have been flowing for years mostly in secret. The secrecy has fueled incorrect, and in retrospect, bizarre ideas about the funding of medical education, and the value of medical educators to their institutions. This secrecy, in turn, has helped suppress the morale of medical educators, support the control of managers of health care professionals, and distort the flow of money within academic institutions and to compensation for certain favored individuals.

Would our dysfunctional health care system not be better off if we demanded transparency and accountability from its leaders?  In particular, the US government should make payments to hospitals for graduate medical education completely transparent, and develop a system to hold these hospitals accountable for how they spend the money.  Meanwhile, top leaders of hospitals receiving this money should make the amounts transparent, first to the people who are supposed to be doing the education that the money pays for, and to the public at large.  This would allow those running the relevant educational programs to develop reasonable and realistic budgets, to treat their faculty with respect, and to demonstrate what value they provide for the money received. 
The ongoing anechoic effect, and related deception and secrecy fostered by leaders in health care are major reasons our health care system is so dysfunctional, that costs are so high, and access and quality so poor.  True health care reform would ensure health care leaders put the mission before their personal enrichment, and act ethically with accountability, transparency, and honesty. 
1.   DeAngelis CD. Professors not professing. JAMA 2004; 292: 1060-1.  Link here.
2.  Goldman L, Halm EA.  A view from the top: general internal medicine from the perspective of a chair and dean.  SGIM Forum, April, 2007.  Link here.
3.  Pololi L, Ash A, Krupat E.  Faculty Values in the Culture of Academic Medicine: Findings of a National Faculty Survey. Link here.
4.  Liebow M, Jaeger J, Schwartz MD. How does Medicare pay for graduate medical education? SGIM Forum, May, 2012.  Link here.
5. Chaudhry SI, Khanijo S, Halvorsen AJ, McDonald FS,Patel K. Accountability and transparency in graduate medical education expenditures. Am J Med 2012; 125: 517-522. Link here.

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