In April, 2013, Medscape published an article whose striking title was "Can You Speak Out Without Getting Fired or Being Labeled a Troublemaker?" The answer was basically "no."
Physicians often see problems at their workplaces relating to patient quality of care, financial practices, mistreatment of staff, and other issues. But as more doctors take jobs as employees of hospitals, medical groups, and other large organizations, they increasingly face the same dilemmas as millions of other working stiffs. When they come across actions or policies that they don't think are right, they have to decide whether it's worth it to speak out and get labeled as a troublemaker -- or perhaps even get fired.
Across the country, a growing number of physicians are indeed losing their jobs -- and often their hospital staff privileges -- after protesting employment conditions. Such complaints may involve patient quality-of-care problems, short staffing, misallocation of funds, improper financial incentives, fraud and abuse, discrimination, overuse or withholding of medical services, or other misconduct, say organized medical groups, employment attorneys, and physician recruiters.
Of course, physicians swear oaths to put the needs of their individual patients first, and doing so within a large organization might well involve protesting conditions and practices that may affect the quality of care or even endanger patients. But woe unto physicians who try to fulfill their professional responsibility when doing so goes up against the top executives to whom the physicians must now report.
'We were naive when we went into this,' says Maria Rivero, MD, who with her professional colleague and significant other Derek Kerr, MD, filed administrative complaints against their long-time hospital employer in 2010. 'We thought if we just brought it to people's attention, they would fix the problem and leave us alone. But if you blow the whistle on high-level executives, you need to prepare to be harassed and lose your job.'
Even working within the system to fix problems can lead to big trouble,
Still, the formal professional approach doesn't always work either. Cloyd Gatrell, MD, an emergency physician who was employed by EmCare, says that he and his wife Kathryn, a nurse, voiced concerns and presented data to executives at Carlisle Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009 on what they saw as inadequate nurse staffing levels that endangered patients.
After getting no results, Dr. Gatrell contacted the state health department, prompting a state inspection that found insufficient staffing. In 2010, he was fired by EmCare at the request of the hospital, according to his 2011 lawsuit against the hospital and EmCare claiming violation of whistleblower protection laws. His wife was fired earlier, and she sued separately. The hospital issued a statement declining comment on the litigation.
'We're supposed to be advocates for patients, but being employed puts us in a precarious position in taking a position on patient interests that's against what the hospital administration favors,' says Dr. Gatrell, whose suit is in the discovery stage. 'I think a physician still has that responsibility.'
Physicians who sign contracts with corporate employers, perhaps thinking that they will have less bureaucracy with which to contend and a more certain salary than they did in private practice, seem blissfully, or willfully unaware that those contracts may take away their ability to control their practices and stand up for their patients.
Still, federal and state whistleblower laws only provide protection from retaliation for physicians in certain situations, such as those employed by public entities or those who complain about civil rights violations or Medicare and Medicaid fraud and abuse. Otherwise doctors may have to rely on contract provisions or on state employment law, which may not offer much protection.
[An anesthesiologist on the AMA Board of Trustees and his hospital system's board,] Dr. Annis says that the AMA's new statement of principles for physician employment -- which asserts that physicians should not be retaliated against by their employers for speaking out on patient care issues -- provides support for doctors when they raise legitimate professional concerns with their employers. He says it's best for physicians to work through their medical staff organization.
But Dr. Gatrell points out that the AMA statement explicitly accepts that physician employment contracts may allow hospitals to strip doctors of their medical staff membership and clinical privileges at the same time they are terminated, known as a 'clean sweep' clause. 'If that's accepted by the AMA, the rest of the principles protecting physicians are meaningless," he argues. "If physicians can be fired without cause and then automatically lose their medical staff membership and its due process protection, how many will dare be a patient advocate?'
Some experts advise physicians not to sign employment agreements with such onerous provisions. But others say that physicians often have little leverage to remove them. 'It's not an equal negotiating table,' says Dr. Gatrell, who's now working for a small urgent care practice.
A May, 2013 article again in Medscape about the "4 Top Complaints of Employed Doctors," explained why physicians often see a lot they could or should protest to assure the quality of their patients' care,
Some doctors report that hospital administrators treat them with a lack of respect. One female doctor said, also on condition of anonymity, that her biggest challenge on her job was 'how to handle nonphysician high school grads bossing you around when they function as your 'superiors' in your employer's organization. They manage their insecurities by bullying physicians and through passive aggressiveness, but always seem to gain the upper hand with those at the top.'
These are the sorts of brilliant administrators often hired by brilliant top executives, maybe at a cheap price to keep the bottom line and executive compensation healthy.. Furthermore, given that as we have discussed, "financialization" of hospital management often puts a bigger priority on short-term revenue than on quality care, as per one senior physician,
'physicians are being increasingly targeted when they get in the way' of hospitals' agendas
To make more money faster, many hospital systems now seem to want physicians to only make referrals for lucrative tests and treatments within the system, even if some patients might be better served elsewhere,
The AMA recently issued guidelines for physician employment stating that 'a physician's paramount responsibility is to his or her patients.' Employers should not retaliate against physicians for asserting their patients' interests, according to these guidelines. 'In any situation where the economic or other interests of the employer are in conflict with patient welfare, patient welfare must take priority,' the AMA says.
The guidelines also call for employers and employed physicians to disclose to patients any agreements or understandings they have that restrict, discourage, or encourage particular treatment or referral options.
Nevertheless, employed physicians are often expected to refer patients within their own groups and send tests to a hospital laboratory or imaging center. Hospitals may tell employed surgeons which kinds of joint implants to use, and according to a New York Times article even whether to implant defibrillators in Medicaid patients. It's unclear how often any of this is disclosed to patients.
'What we doctors say is that we're ethically bound to our patients because we took an oath, and that's what our license is based on,' says Linda Brodsky. 'But many hospitals say, 'No, you're employed here, and what we say goes.'
Note that so far there seems to be little evidence that the AMA guidelines about physician employment are being honored other than in the breach. It is also disappointing that the leadership of the medical society that represents internists seems so unworried,
David L. Bronson, MD, President of the American College of Physicians, disputes Brodsky's assertion that hospitals tend to squelch doctors who criticize leadership for policies that they believe harm patient care. In fact, he says, healthcare organizations may identify outspoken physicians as potential leaders, 'as long as they're collaborative and trying to solve problems, and not just be a thorn in the side of everyone they know. Organizations are looking for physician leaders, and physicians who can collaborate and not just be adversarial can go far inside organizations.'
I would guess, having seen so many examples of generic management, mission-hostile management, management that seems more focused on the money than patient care, and management that seems to be able to make itself rich without evidence that it has done anything noteworthy to uphold hospitals' clinical missions, that hospital systems that promote physicians who are willing to speak out against hired executives are vanishingly rare.
In June, 2013, Beckers Hospital Review published an article suggesting that now hospitals are going beyond just pressuring employed physicians to refer potentially profitable patients within the system, and now are pressuring physicians to act as salespeople to their colleagues,
A few hospitals are beginning to train their employed physicians to "sell" the hospital, which involves asking referring doctors in the community to send patients their way.... the pressure to bring doctors into sales is mounting.
The author, the former publisher of Modern Healthcare, made a remarkable argument based on a definition that seems wildly optimistic,
Customer service lies at the core of salesmanship. The Business Dictionary defines salesmanship as satisfying customer needs through a sincere and mutually beneficial process aimed at a long-term relationship.
Of course, skeptical physicians used to exposure to the sales tactics pharmaceutical and device companies use (look here, here, and here, for example) might wonder why the author did not discuss such marketing tactics as the employment of half-truths and biased information, and the use of emotional appeals to trump reason and logic.
That the author was serious was shown by his list of seven pointers for hospitals seeking to transform its employed physicians into marketers.
Of course, physicians who are already "key opinion leaders" employed by drug and device companies, whose marketing executives may think. that "key opinion leaders were sales people for us," (see this post), might not be fazed by now being asked to market their own hospital. Never mind about Principle II of the AMA Code of Ethics
II. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities.
The Moral of the Story
We have previously discussed various aspects of the travails of the brave new world of the corporate physician. Physicians and other health professionals who sign on as full-time employees of large corporate entities have to realize that they are now beholden to managers and executives who may be hostile to their professional values, and who are subject to perverse incentives that support such hostility, including the potential for huge executive compensation. Physicians seem to be willing to sign contracts that underline their new subservience to their corporate overlords, and likely trap them within confidentiality clauses that make blowing the whistle likely to lead to extreme unpleasantness.
It is disappointing that even medical societies that ostensibly support physicians' professional values have been afraid to warn against such employment, or do much to help physicians trapped within it.
Physicians who go to work for big corporations have to realize that they may be forced to put corporate executives' vested interests ahead of their patients. Patients whose physicians work for big corporations must realize that their health care will now be corporate, with all that entails.
As I have said before, we need to challenge the notion that direct health care should ever be provided, or that medicine ought to be practiced by for-profit corporations. I submit that we will not be able to have good quality, accessible health care at an affordable price until we restore physicians as independent, ethical health care professionals, and until we restore small, independent, community responsible, non-profit hospitals as the locus for inpatient care.