Recent Developments in Business Management Dogma Have Gravely Affected Health Care
Many health practitioners will consider the theory of business management to be of obscure relevance to clinical practice. They might therefore be surprised to learn that the changes that have occurred in this discipline over recent years have driven a fundamental revolution that has already transformed their daily lives, arguably in perverse and harmful ways.
These Changes Have Been Largely Anechoic
these changes have by and large been introduced insidiously, with little public debate, under the guise of unquestioned 'best practice'.
See our previous discussions of the anechoic effect, how discussion of facts and ideas that threaten what we can now call the managerialist power structure of health care are not considered appropriate for polite conversation, or public discussion
Businesses are Now Run by Professional Managers, Not Owners
The traditional control by business owners in Europe and North America gave way during the 19th century to corporate control of companies. This led to the emergence of a new group of professionals whose job it was to perform the administrative tasks of production. Consequently, management became identified as both a skill and a profession in its own right, requiring specific training and based on numerous emergent theories of practice.
These Changes Were Enabled by Neoliberalism (or Market Fundamentalism, or Economism)
Among these many vicissitudes, a decisive new departure occurred with the advent of what became known as neoliberalism in the 1980s (sometimes called Thatcherism because of its enthusiastic adoption by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom). A reaction against Keynesian economic policy and the welfare state, this harshly reinstated the regulatory role of the market in all aspects of economic activity and led directly to the generalisation of the standards and practices of management from the private to the public sectors. The radical cost cutting and privatisation of social services that followed the adoption of neoliberal principles became a public policy strategy rigorously embraced by governments around the world, including successive Liberal and Labor governments in Australia.
Note that this is a global problem, at least of English speaking developed countries. The article focuses on Australia, but we have certainly seen parallels in the US and the UK. Further, note that we have discussed this concept, also termed market fundamentalism or economism.
Managerialism Provides a One-Size Fits All Approach to the Management of All Organizations, in Which Money Becomes the Central Consideration
The particular system of beliefs and practices defining the roles and powers of managers in our present context is what is referred to as managerialism. This is defined by two basic tenets: (i) that all social organisations must conform to a single structure; and (ii) that the sole regulatory principle is the market. Both ideas have far-reaching implications. The claim that every organisation — whether it is a mining company, a hospital, a school, a professional association or a charity — must be structured according to a single model, conforming to a single set of legislative requirements, not so long ago would have seemed bizarre, but is now largely taken for granted. The principle of the market has become the solitary, or dominant, criterion for decision making, and other criteria, such as loyalty, trust, care and a commitment to critical reflection, have become displaced and devalued. Indeed, the latter are viewed as quaint anachronisms with less importance and meaning than formal procedures or standards that can be readily linked to key performance indicators, budget end points, efficiency markers and externally imposed targets.
Originally conceived as a strategy to manage large and increasingly complex organisations, in the contemporary world, no aspect of social life is now considered to be exempt from managerialist principles and practices. Policies and practices have become highly standardised, emphasising market-style incentives, devolved budgets and outsourcing, replacement of centralised budgeting with departmentalised user-pays systems, casualisation of labour, and an increasingly hierarchical approach to every aspect of institutional and social organisation.
We have frequently discussed how professional generic managers have taken over health care (sometimes referred to as the manager's coup d'etat.) We have noted that generic managers often seem ill-informed about if not overtly hostile to the values of health care professionals and the missions of health care organizations.
Very Adverse Effects Result in Health Care and Academics
In the workplace, the authority of management is intensified, and behaviour that previously might have been regarded as bullying becomes accepted good practice. The autonomous discretion of the professional is undermined, and cuts in staff and increases in caseload occur without democratic consultation of staff. Loyal long-term staff are dismissed and often humiliated, and rigorous monitoring of the performance of the remaining employees focuses on narrowly defined criteria relating to attainment of financial targets, efficiency and effectiveness.
The principles of managerialist theory have been applied equally to the public and the private sectors. In the health sector, it has precipitated a shift in power from clinicians to managers and a change in emphasis from a commitment to patient care to a primary concern with budgetary efficiency. Increasingly, public hospital funding is tied to reductions in bed stays and other formal criteria, and all decision making is subject to review relating to time and money. Older and chronically ill people become seen not as subjects of compassion, care and respect but as potential financial burdens. This does not mean that the system is not still staffed by skilled clinicians committed to caring for the sick and needy; it is rather that it has become increasingly harder for these professionals to do their jobs as they would like.
In the university sector, the story is much the same; all activities are assessed in relation to the prosperity of the institution as a business enterprise rather than as a social one. Education is seen as a commodity like any other, with priority given to vocational skills rather than intellectual values. Teaching and research become subordinated to administration, top-down management and obsessively applied management procedures. Researchers are required to generate external funding to support their salaries, to focus on short-term problems, with the principal purpose being to enhance the university's research ranking. The focus shifts from knowledge to grant income, from ideas to publications, from speculation to conformity, from collegiality to property, and from academic freedom to control. Rigid hierarchies are created from heads of school to deans of faculties and so on. Academic staff — once encouraged to engage in public life — are forbidden to speak publicly without permission from their managers.
Again, we have discussed these changes largely in the US context. We have noted how modern health care leadership has threatened primary care. We have noted how vulnerable patients become moreso in the current system, e.g., see our discussions of for-profit hospices. We have discussed attacks on academic freedom and free speech, the plight of whistle-blowers, education that really is deceptive marketing, academic institutions mired in individual and institutional conflicts of interest, and the suppression and manipulation of clinical research. We have noted how health care leaders have become increasingly richly rewarded, apparently despite, or perhaps because of the degradation of the health care mission over which they have presided.
The Case Study
The article provided a case study of the apparent demise of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians as a physician led organization, leading to alleged emphasis on "extreme secrecy and 'commercial in confidence," growth of conflicts of interest, risk aversion on controversial issues. When members of the organization called for a vote to increase transparency and accountability, the hired management apparently sued their own members.
Whether the damage done to the larger institutions — the public hospitals and the universities — can be reversed, or even stemmed, is a bigger question still. The most that can be said is that even if the present, damaging phase of managerial theory and practice eventually passes, its destructive effects will linger on for many years to come.
I now believe that the most important cause of US health care dysfunction, and likely of global health care dysfunction, are the problems in leadership and governance we have often summarized (leadership that is ill-informed, ignorant or hostile to the health care mission and professional values, incompetent, self-interested, conflicted or outright criminal or corrupt, and governance that lacks accountability, transparency, honesty, and ethics.) In turn, it appears that these problems have been generated by the twin plagues of managerialism (generic management, the manager's coup d'etat) and neoliberalism (market fundamentalism, economism) as applied to health care. It may be the many of the larger problems in US and global society also can be traced back to these sources.
We now see our problems in health care as part of a much larger whole, which partly explains why efforts to address specific health care problems country by country have been near futile. We are up against something much larger than what we thought when we started Health Care Renewal in 2005. But at least we should now be able join our efforts to those in other countries and in other sectors.
ADDENDUM (30 October, 2015) - This post was republished on the Naked Capitalism blog. See the comments, which are particularly interesting and important.
1. Komesaroff PA, Kerridge IH, Isaacs D, Brooks PM. The scourge of managerialism and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Med J Aust 2015; 202: 519- 521. Link here.
We have to leaven this dismal post with the 1980 live version of "Down Under" by Men at Work