I always believed that, if we could harness the entrepreneurial spirit of the American physician, we could be capable of great things. Physician decisions drive much of what is good and bad about our health care system. Their pens are the biggest driver of cost and their vigilance is the most significant driver of quality. It is a shame that physician-owned hospitals are accelerating the creation of a two-tier system by cherry-picking healthy, well-insured patients.
There are overwhelming monetary incentives for physician-owned hospitals to market to the healthiest and wealthiest, who seek a narrow list of procedural interventions. But then those physicians are rewarded with value-based payments for high satisfaction scores and low readmission rates as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
What happens to the rest of the patients—the ones with one if not several chronic conditions and minimal if any insurance?
They find their way to teaching hospitals, which treat a disproportionate number of “dual eligibles” (seniors so poor they need both Medicare and Medicaid support), the disabled, and nonwhite patients. Teaching hospitals can quickly become underfunded and over-stretched, offering opportunities for physician-owned hospitals in the market to deliver better quality, albeit more expensive, health care to those who have the ability to choose. In spite of that, many teaching hospitals deliver excellent service and care.
In a May 14 Wall Street Journal article, Alicia Mundy wrote, “Doctor-owned hospitals are largely privately held, so it’s difficult to know their profit margins, despite the law’s growth restrictions. According to the American Hospital Directory, a private firm that provides data about some 6,000 U.S. hospitals, many physician-owned hospitals have enjoyed 20 to 35 percent profit margins in recent years.”
I am old enough to remember when physicians did not advertise. It was considered a professional ethical issue. Hospital advertising consisted of institutional “We’re here” ads. Anything aggressive by docs or hospitals was considered bad taste… but that was before health care became as competitive as any other type of business.
I have been barraged, as have many of you, by a wave of hospital advertisements as our health care marketplaces consolidate and organizations seek to brand and differentiate themselves. We are subjected to print, radio, and TV ads extolling services, expensive technology, and that fact that each institution cares more than its competitors.
Charlie Rohlfing blogged recently about the worst in hospital advertising techniques, and you will recognize them all. They usually include a Da Vinci Robot and orthopedic surgery that will “get you back in the game.” They claim to be “state-of-the-art,” “leading edge,” or “cutting edge,” with actors playing doctors and nurses in masks.
Although members of the Obama team are now celebrating their election victory, the next four years will not be smooth sailing. Ignoring the campaign rhetoric, there is still much more work to be done in order to reshape our health care system; the effect on academic medical centers and teaching hospitals will be significant.
The political conscience is still being driven by the fear of the fiscal cliff, which dominates most Washington conversations. Both political parties agree that health care is a significant contributor to our present and future deficit and that we have to figure out how to deliver more care at a lower cost. But, they argue about what to call it, who gets credit, and whether the solution is bigger government involvement or a dominant private market?The potential cuts to NIH funding and graduate medical education support do not go away with another four Obama years. We anticipate that the president will reform the tax code and transform how we deliver health care. The latter will be his lasting legacy.
However, in all this chaos, there are opportunities. While we no longer hope for a bipartisan middle ground on health care — and rancor will certainly escalate if President Obama is reelected — to many people, the Affordable Care Act is starting to look like a tangible business opportunity. Every insurer is looking at the 30 million uninsured people who will receive coverage through a mix of subsidized private insurance for middle-class households and expanded Medicaid for low-income people. These new markets could be worth $50 billion to $60 billion in premiums in 2014, and as much as $230 billion annually within seven years. The structure and implementation of these programs present specific challenges for AMCs.