Friday, April 01, 2005

"Doctors and dollars"

In The New Yorker, surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande is startled when his first employer asks what he'd like to be paid. How should he answer?
...I tried asking various members of the surgical staff. These turned out to be awkward conversations. I’d pose my little question, and they’d start mumbling as if their mouths were full of crackers. I tried all kinds of formulations. Maybe they could tell me how much take-home pay would be if one did, say, eight major operations a week? Or how much they thought I should ask for? Nobody would give me a number.

Most people are squeamish about saying how much they earn, but in medicine the situation seems especially fraught...
He explores the byzantine rules that govern doctors' reimbursement. He also meets a "financial-disaster specialist for doctors":
Roberta called by physician groups or hospitals when they suddenly find that they can’t make ends meet. (“I fix messes” was the way she put it to me.) At the time I spoke to her, she was in Pennsylvania, trying to figure out where things had gone wrong for a struggling hospital. In previous months, she’d been in Mississippi, to help a group of a hundred and twenty-five physicians who found they were in debt; Washington, D.C., where a physician group was worried about its survival; and New England, for a big anesthesiology department that had lost fifty million dollars. She’d turned away a dozen other clients. It’s quite possible, she told me, for a group of doctors to make nothing at all.

Doctors quickly learn that how much they make has little to do with how good they are. It largely depends on how they handle the business side of their practice. “A patient calls to schedule an appointment, and right there things can fall apart,” she said. If patients don’t have insurance, you have to see if they qualify for a state assistance program like Medicaid. If they do have insurance, you have to find out whether the insurer lists you as a valid physician. You have to make sure the insurer covers the service the patient is seeing you for and find out the stipulations that are made on that service. You have to make sure the patient has the appropriate referral number from his primary-care physician. You also have to find out if the patient has any outstanding deductibles or a co-payment to make, because patients are supposed to bring the money when they see you. “Patients find this extremely upsetting,” Parillo said. “ ‘I have insurance! Why do I have to pay for anything! I didn’t bring any money!’ Suddenly, you have to be a financial counsellor. At the same time, you feel terrible telling them not to come in unless they bring cash, check, or credit card. So you see them anyway, and now you’re going to lose twenty per cent, which is more than your margin, right off the bat.”

Even if all this gets sorted out, there’s a further gantlet of mind-numbing insurance requirements...
No surprises here for my medical colleagues...
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