Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Money vs Mission - How Generic Managers vs Physicians Think

On Health Care Renewal, we emphasize problems in leadership and governance in large health care organizations, and how they affect health care professionals' attempts to carry out their mission, and ultimately how they affect patients' and the public's health.  Large health care organizations are increasingly led by people trained in business, not health care professionals, thus generic managers.  The stewards of these organizations, the members of their boards of directors or boards of trustees, are also increasingly current or former managers without direct health care experience. Yet all too often, health care leadership is ill-informed, incompetent, unsympathetic or hostile to health care professionals' values, self-interested, conflicted, dishonest, or even corrupt.

Recently, in an effort to "bridge the gap" between physicians and MBAs, a new article in Becker's Hospital Review by Todd Kislak discussed differences in the thinking and values among business trained health care managers and physicians.  The author, an MBA, listed nine issues on which MDs and MBAs have different views.  I have summarized below what appear to me to be the main points, somewhat reorganized from how he did it. Whether he meant to or not, Mr Kislak showed why physicians may have reason not to trust their new generic managers. 

Making Widgets vs Treating Patients

Mr Kislak wrote that MBAs see health care in terms of orderly, uniform and standardized processes, while physicians see it in terms of the complexity and variability of patients, the ambiguity of diagnosis, and the unpredictability of outcomes.  

 2. Scalability. As a rule, MBAs tend to seek solutions to problems in a way that they perceive to be scalable and replicable, trained in the belief that the capacity to perform repetitively and consistently leads to better efficiency and quality. One-off situations are by definition outliers, and as such their importance tends to be downplayed.


 3. Centralization....   MBAs, ... tend to seek centralized approaches to decision-making, often appearing in the guise of policies, programs and processes. 

So, the gist is MBAs see health care as analogous to an assembly line.  The idea is to provide uniform, consistent services that conform to the policies, programs and processes that come down from central headquarters, run by MBAs.

On the other hand, he noted that physicians think that "every case has the potential to be unique in some way," while MBAs "view the unusual case as an unwelcome break in the routine, adding cost while slowing down the efficient care of other patients."

IMHO, common sense, and a raft of epidemiological data support the MDs.  Patients differ in demographics, biopsychosocial characteristics, co-morbid conditions, histories of previous treatment, responses to therapy, etc, etc, etc.  Patients, their complaints, and their situations are complex and variable.   Furthermore, acute illnesses, complications of chronic illnesses, accidents occur unexpectedly, in unexpected ways.  Diagnosis are often unclear and ambiguous.  Patients' prognoses and responses to therapy are unpredictable.  Thus, IMHO, seeing health care like an assembly, in terms of regularity and uniformity, seems dissociated from reality.  I have a hard time believing that MBAs who actually require medical care want to be treated as if they were identical to the next 10 patients.

"You Manage What You Measure" vs Complexity, Variability, Ambiguity, and Unpredictability of Patients, Diseases, Prognoses, and Treatments 

Mr Kislak suggested that MBAs emphasize measurement, especially the measurement of physicians' performance,

5. Performance. One of the healthcare MBA's favorite analytical tools is performance rankings of the MDs. Quantifying 'results' based on pre-determined metrics, assigning them a weight for averaging purposes and reducing performance down to a number is, to the MBA, how MDs and indeed all workers should be measured. 'You manage what you measure' is the MBA's mantra.


6. Productivity. MBAs look at MDs' productivity statistics (another performance measure) and wonder why so many MDs claim they are overworked. Looking at work hour statistics supplied by the Medical Group Management Association, one would not come away convinced that most MDs are logging more hours than, say, the typical healthcare MBA or indeed any high-caliber professional service provider.

Mr Kislak noted that physicians object to pay for performance and "may viscerally react to this uniform approach to performance assessment as inappropriate and even fundamentally at odds with the practice of medicine. Too much context is lost in the numbers, and too many factors beyond their personal control bear upon the performance 'data.'"   He did explain why MBAs are unconcerned about the accuracy and meaning of the measures they manage. 

The "you manage what you measure" heuristic seems based on the concept, or better yet fallacy that everything in health care is uniform and predictable.  This seems an extended version of what has been called the streetlight effect or the drunkard's search.  (See, for example, the version from Wikipedia, attributed to David H Freedman.  (2010). Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us)  It begs the question of what is practical to measure is worth measuring, that is, is accurate, reliable, and meaningful.
Furthermore, there is now a considerable literature in medicine and health care showing that it is extremely difficult to develop performance measures that are reliable and meaningfully predictive.  (I cannot claim to have written comprehensively on this topic, but see posts here, and here.  For some good informal writing on why pay for performance [P4P] may not work, see Dr Robert Centor's blog DBs Medical Rants)

Considerable research has also shown that P4P rarely improves performance, and may make it worse.   For example, the results of a systematic review published in 2012 [Houle SKD, McAlister FA, Jackevicius CA et al.  Does performance-based remuneration for individual health care practitioners affect patient care? - a systematic review.  Ann Intern Med 2012; 157: 889-899.  Link here.] were that

The effect of P4P targeting individual practitioners on quality of care and outcomes remains largely uncertain.

Furthermore, a 2012 analysis of pay for performance [Glasziou PP, Buchan H, Del Mar C et al.  When financial incentives do more good than harm: a checklist.  Brit Med J 2012; 345: e5047. Link here.] included the summary statement,

Current evidence on the effectiveness of financial incentives is modest and inconsistent.

Thus, it would seem that the MBAs have neither good logic nor good evidence to support their faith in their current metrics, particularly those they use to assess physicians' performance. 

Power and Money vs Patients' and the Public's Health

Mr Kislak saw himself as supporting physicians in "their mission to provide high quality and effective care to their patients."  In the conclusion to his article, he asserted that physicians and MBAs "share the same overarching goals ... - effective healthcare delivery...."  However, in the body of the article, Mr Kislak suggested that MBAs see their goals in terms of power and money...  

4. Leadership. MBAs like to think of themselves as either nascent or actual leaders. It is understood that their intention is to build a career trajectory that will move them up in their organization (or in another organization) into positions of increasing authority and control. After all, this is an important reason why they become MBAs in the first place.

Furthermore, Mr Kislak wrote

8. Language. MDs and MBAs usually work for some type of business entity, whether that entity is for-profit, nonprofit, academic, government or sole proprietorship. To the MBA, however, it is all too apparent that with few exceptions MDs have little training in the language of business that all entities speak — the language of finance and accounting.

He noted that "this is a significant disconnect and a root cause of why MDs and MBAs often find themselves talking past each other on even the most basic business issues."  However, interestingly he did not even mention that MBAs may have as little facility with the language of medicine and health care as physicians have with the language of finance or accounting.  Furthermore, he seemed unaware that it makes as little sense to say that discourse in health care should be in the language of finance as to say discourse in finance should be in the language of health care. 

Finally, Mr Kislak made it very clear that to MBAs, money comes ahead of patient care,

9. Growth. MBAs are trained to look for ways to grow the organization's revenues and profits to the long-term benefit of the owners or stewards of that organization. Improvements to quality, efficiency, profits, revenues, technology and the like are generally viewed as a means to that end of growing,

Yet he noted that

the MDs sometimes wonder what all the growth talk may be costing their own priorities, including their compensation. This issue can become rather sensitive when it implies that the MD is less concerned with the long-term health of the organization than the MBA, and can devolve into finger-wagging about lack of engagement or weak physician-hospital alignment.

It is a measure of how much generic managers have taken over that the physicians may be blamed for lack of interest in the long-term "health of the organization," while the MBAs seem totally unconcerned about what effects the organization has on the real health of patients or the public.

Thus, fundamentally, MBAs running health care organizations are mainly interested in growing their organizations so that they bring in more money.  MBAs hope to leverage their organizations' financial performance so that they personally can rise to positions of greater power and wealth.  Health care is simply a "means to that end."  Mr Kislak seems to have confirmed my worst fears that most of health care's current generic managers put short-term revenue, and their own wealth and power, ahead of patients' and the public's health. 


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). As we noted here, the growth continued, so there are now 10 managers for every US physician. 

Now we have one MBA with considerable experience inside health care, and personal sympathy for the goals of high quality and effective care for patients, who. perhaps inadvertently, suggested why this managers' coup d'etat was a terrible idea, and why MBAs should not be allowed to lead health care organizations.  He corroborated our concerns that generic managers may be ill-informed and do not understand the health care context, particularly the variability and complexity of patients and their problems, the ambiguity of diagnosis, and the unpredictability of prognosis and response to therapy.  They believe in simplistic management approaches, particularly the usefulness of measurement and metrics, even in the absence of logic or evidence supporting them.  Furthermore, they may be heedless of the mission of health care, particularly of the primacy of the patient, and in fact put their own organizations' revenue ahead of patient care, and ultimately may pursue power and money rather than patients' and the public's health.  

As I have said before,  true health care reform would put in place leadership that understands the health care context, upholds health care professionals' values, and puts patients' and the public's health ahead of extraneous, particularly short-term financial concerns. We need health care governance that holds health care leaders accountable, and ensures their transparency, integrity and honesty.

But this sort of reform would challenge the interests of managers who are getting very rich off the current system.  So I am afraid the US may end up going far down this final common pathway before enough people manifest enough strength to make real changes.

ADDENDUM - This post was re-posted on the Naked Capitalism blog


Ray Collins said...

I understand what you are writing about clashing value systems. I would go farther, however, and say that some of our health care leaders are trained as corporate sociopaths.

Steve Lucas said...

One constant issue with my MBA program was that I came from a craft background. My classmates did not understand the variations you have in any construction project. They felt you had a book standard and everyone performed to book or you got someone who could, simple.

The other issue was there are no requirements for an undergraduate program in a MBA program. We had people with many different backgrounds, but I was one of the few with business undergraduate degrees.

A number of instructors were like graduate instructors anywhere in that they felt they were offering great insights to the unwashed. The problem was there was a work requirement in our program and most of us saw through these instructors for their lack of experience. Other programs did not have this requirement and some of the things coming out of those programs defied logic.

A MBA can be a great start to a business career, as long as like medicine, there is a certain level of humility and a willingness to continue to learn.

Steve Lucas

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Ray Collins,

We have discussed the likelihood that non-violent psychopaths are in leadership positions in big health organizations, most recently here:


Anonymous said...

At the end of the day, this is the only response: http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2014/07/23/bmjqs-2014-003248.short?rss=1

InformaticsMD said...

Re: "I have a hard time believing that MBAs who actually require medical care want to be treated as if they were identical to the next 10 patients."

It would teach them a darn good lesson, though.

InformaticsMD said...

And, in my view, the same MBA leadership phenomenon has severely injured the pharma industry. FOr example, the metric used to gauge the scientific value of informatics resources in my experience - particularly the downsizing of those resources made necessary by others' bad decisions - were so malformed as to be injurious.