Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Rise of the Corporate Physician, and the "Metastasis of Big Corporations"

Public discussion has raised more questions over the last few months about physicians taking care of patients as corporate employees. 

More Physician Practices Taken over by Large Corporations

This year, more stories have appeared about large corporations taking over physician practices.  In February, there was an account of efforts by competing nominally non-profit health insurance company Highmark and nominally non-profit hospital system UPMC in Pittsburgh in a "race to gobble up private physician practices," per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  In March, the Washington Post featured a first-person account of what it is like for a physician in a private practice to try to hold out against the trend towards corporate practice.  In May, the Los Angeles Times noted how for-profit dialysis provider Da Vita purchased a large, but already for-profit operator of physician groups.  In October, Reuters reported how the recently announced acquisition by giant for-profit insurance company UnitedHealth of the biggest Brazilian for-profit managed care company will result in UnitedHealth owning an operating a Brazilian network of hospitals and clinics.

Concerns about Concentration of Market Power and Prices

In an increasingly financialized country, the media has featured concerns that the trend towards corporate physician practice might result in increasing market power for a few large corporations, and hence increased prices.  For example, in August, Anna Wilde Matthews reporting for the Wall Street Journal, noted
 Hospitals say the acquisitions will make health care more efficient. But the phenomenon, in some cases, also is having another effect: higher prices. 

As physicians are subsumed into hospital systems, they can get paid for services at the systems' rates, which are typically more generous than what insurers pay independent doctors. What's more, some services that physicians previously performed at independent facilities, such as imaging scans, may start to be billed as hospital outpatient procedures, sometimes more than doubling the cost.
The result is that the same service, even sometimes provided in the same location, can cost more once a practice signs on with a hospital.

Major health insurers say a growing number of rate increases are tied to physician-practice acquisitions. 

As Ms Matthews also reported for the Wall Street Journal, state regulators are beginning to worry about acquisitions of doctors' practices by hospital systems may drive up prices.
California's attorney general has launched a broad investigation into whether growing consolidation among hospitals and doctor groups is pushing up the price of medical care, reflecting increasing scrutiny by antitrust regulators of medical-provider deals.
Concerns about Care Quality

Concerns about whether physicians who must practice under the command of corporate executives will be able to put patient care ahead of corporate interests are also appearing, but not yet as prominently.

For example, Steve Twedt, writing for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette in September, looked into whether the multiple practice acquisitions by the area's two biggest ostensibly non-profit health care corporations might affect patient care.  He first noted "competition between Highmark and UPMC for doctors, and health care overhaul that is steering doctors into larger systems...."  Then he suggested that this has lead to marked discontinuities in patient care when physicians switch employment,
Out of the blue, people will learn their doctor has left a practice with little or no explanation, and without a forwarding address. When a physician effectively disappears, the cause usually is tied to the physician's employment contract, says a local health care attorney.
These cases of apparently vanishing physicians may be due to the contracting practices of physician employers, particularly large health care corporations.  The lawyer Mr Twedt interviewed explained,
most physician contracts now contain clauses that prohibit doctors from soliciting patients if they leave a practice.

While it's not always clear what constitutes 'solicitation,' it generally means departing physicians cannot contact their patients to invite or entice patients to follow them to their new location. They also cannot take their patient list with them, since that is property of the practice.

'I would imagine the doctor wouldn't contact them because he can't, or he doesn't have their address,' said Mr. Cassidy.

Contracts also often require that doctors cannot practice medicine within 10 miles of the previous practice office, and sometimes the required distance is even greater. Nor can they give out information about the practice they're leaving. Violating these contract terms could mean a financial penalty, such as loss of severance pay.
Finally, and most troubling, cardiologist blogger Dr Melissa Walton-Shirley recounted in some much more colorful language some consequences of cardiology practices which were acquired by large hospital systems.  She noted...
Referral Decisions Influenced by Management Edicts, but Maybe Not Patients' Needs
Physicians may be
sweating bullets over whether they are going to hit their benchmarks to retain their salaries. My anxious friends are now calling me for more referrals and more practice support.  They take any transfer I give them....
They may
 morph from human flesh into a Rubik's cube of relative value units (RVUs), the formula through which all future salaries and bonuses are calculated.

Resulting Loss of Continuity
Independent cardiologists opened office doors to find their patients who were anticipating decisions on timing of defibrillators, caths, or medical therapy had undergone testing at other facilities. Those tests were interpreted by cardiologists who were in no way connected to their care, their referrals to unfamiliar testing venues now incentivized by hidden contractual microformulas. They were evaluated far away from the familiar eye of their long-time cardiologists.


Back in the day, most physicians who took direct care of patients did so out of practices they or other physicians ran and owned.  The majority of physicians who took care of physicians as employees worked for the military or the Veterans Administration, or took care of patients only part-time as faculty of medical schools.  In a country increasingly prodded by market fundamentalism, the last few years has seen a major change in health care:  more and more physicians are taking care of patients as employees of large corporations, more often for-profit.

 I should add, though, that the recent push towards corporate practice was not just due to market fundamentalism, but also seems to in part be due to provisions of the recent attempt at US health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, which called for care by large organizations called accountable care organizations (ACOs).   However, like some other major changes in health care in the US over the last few years pushed by the increasing dominance of large corporations, this one happened without any rigorous assessments of whether the benefits for individual patients or public health would outweigh the harms, and justify the costs. 

Justified by the realization, now mostly forgotten, that health care is nothing like an ideal free market (look here), direct health care used to be almost entirely provided by health care professionals, often working in small, non-profit community hospital settings.  In fact, the American Medical Association used to condemn the corporate practice of medicine.  In addition, the corporate practice of medicine used to be illegal in many US states (look here).

We have changed all that, without too much thought, and without any rigorous assessment.  Now it seems increasingly likely that these changes are just increasing health care costs, and probably will cause worsening patient care and will worsen patients' and the public's health. 

As Dr Melissa Walton-Shirley wrote more vividly,
Monopolies never meant to be planted in gardens so small grew like bull thistles, literally overtaking all the good things that small community medicine had to offer. They are now barely recognizable small towns with the crabgrasslike metastasis of big corporations....

Will there be time to rethink this headlong rush before our health care options are restricted to that provided by one of a few huge corporations?  

True health care reform would reverse the trend to organize health care within ever larger, more bureaucratic, more monolithic, more dominant organizations.  Such reform is unlikely to happen until we see the nadir produced by the current bandwagon. 


Deborah Maliver M.D., J.D. said...

Amen. I see it get worse every day.

Anonymous said...

The fact that CMS and insurers are perfectly willing to pay so much for "hospital outpatient procedures" indicates that they have zero interest in reducing health care expenses.

Steve Lucas said...

One really does not have to look much farther than this link to see the corporate nature of medicine being practiced in hospitals:

The evolution of a story: hospital “selling scans” makes it into final headline

Or this link:

The most criminalized university in America.

And we haven’t even started talking about the medical school.

Has the corporate ethos so infected our hospitals, universities, and doctor offices that profit is the only driver, and patient care is incidental?

Steve Lucas

BobbyG said...

I wonder what Dr. Touusaint, Dr. Brent James, or the Mayo people would say about this?

Kelly Crofton said...

Yes its true, its getting worse day by day and it seems that they have no plans of reducing the health care expenses.