Docs in a Skinner Box

By Jane Orient, MD, Association of American Physicians and Surgeons

Behavior modification for physicians, as through pay for performance (“P4P”), is a central feature of “healthcare reform.”

The P4P idea, while now becoming explicit for physicians, is actually pervasive in society. “Do this, and you’ll get that” is the core of pop behaviorism, writes Alfie Kohn in his 1993 book Punished by Rewards. American managers are fundamentalists in their adherence to the Skinnerian model of motivation, he states.

When an influential idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, it is time to fear its hold on us. Quoting Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, Kohn notes:  “For the anthropomorphic view of the rat, American psychology substituted a rattomorphic view of man.”

CMS Director Donald Berwick, M. D., a great admirer of the Japanese industrial model and its potential for standardizing physician behavior, is apparently not aware of the conclusion of W. Edwards Deming, who was sent to Japan to study that model.

“Pay is not a motivator,” says Deming. And the system for appraising and rewarding merit “is the most powerful inhibitor to quality and productivity in the Western world.”  He adds that it “nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry, and…leaves people bitter.” Kohn notes that it is also simply unfair when it holds people responsible for factors beyond their control. One variation on the behaviorist theme that practically guarantees enmity is the collective (“shared”) reward. Since one troublemaker can spoil it for all, it calls forth a particularly noxious form of peer pressure. “This gambit is one of the most transparently manipulative strategies used by people in power.”

P4P, in Kohn’s view, is “an inherently flawed concept.”

Nevertheless, the current Administration has launched “one of the most ambitious behaviorist-style policy projects in American political history,” writes Christine Rosen (“Now Behave,” Commentary, July/August 2010). Regulation czar Cass Sunstein is a member of the behavioral brain trust that intends to bring about profound changes through specifications and regulations.

Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs)

The main difference between ACOs and HMOs is size—5,000 enrollees versus hundreds of thousands, writes Kip Sullivan for Physicians for a National Health Program California. Accountability for cost will be achieved by shifting insurance risk to providers, who are required to achieve “measured quality improvements.” The “defined population,” derived from fee-for-service Medicare recipients, apparently is assigned by the HHS Secretary, based on rules about who provides the majority of the patient’s primary care. Each primary practitioner is supposed to be part of only one ACO (NEJM 10/7/10). A booming industry has arisen to advise on ACO formation, even though the rules and information infrastructure still do not exist.

One problem to be ironed out is how to get around antitrust law, anti-kickback law, and restrictions on physician self-referral.

In an ACO, doctors are “double agents playing the dual role of caregiver and insurance underwriter,” writes Robert Geist, M.D. “ACOs are gatekeeping organizations to serve the purposes of ‘payers’…under the guise of the grander purposes of ‘society.’”

The AMA Board has apparently decided to do everything it can to promote ACOs, writes David McKalip, M.D. AMA president Cecil Wilson, M.D., told the House of Delegates that he would work to get small practices networked into ACOs—and didn’t seem to think that there is any role for any doctor to ever work outside an ACO. P4P is a mandatory and integral part of ACO implementation, Dr. McKalip adds. Yet AMA leaders continue to ignore the directive to actively oppose P4P programs that are not compliant with AMA principles.

For hospitals, ACOs offer another opportunity to garner money and power in the developing feudal medical system. “Global” payments for “episodes of care”—perhaps lasting 6 to 12 months—will guarantee skimping on payment to the serfs for the care of sick livestock, writes Lawrence Huntoon, M.D., Ph.D. Companies that specialize in investigating “disruptive” physicians seem to be springing up everywhere, he notes. One found 8 “independent” physician members of the medical executive committee guilty of being “intimidating.”

Docs out of the Box

In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm,  the initial success of the socialist experiment depended heavily on the efforts of the loyal, strong horse Boxer, who responded to every setback with the resolve to work a little harder, and who had unquestioning faith in Napoleon, the leading pig. What will happen if Boxer retires early, or defies Napoleon—or if doctors decide to stop pushing the little lever to get their reward of a food pellet?

Of physicians responding to a 2010 Physicians Foundation survey, 40% said they would drop out of patient care within the next 3 years. About 60% said “reform” would compel them to close or significantly restrict their practice to certain patients. While more than half thought that patient volume would increase, 69% said they did not have the time or resources to see more patients while maintaining quality. About 16% said they planned to switch to a cash-based on concierge practice.

“Reinforcement” is a negative for excellence, even when cast in the form of an incentive rather than a punishment.


2 Responses

  1. Matthew Wynia, Director of the AMA Institute for Ethics,
    informed me that rewards for performance are UNETHICAL because all physicians are ethically required to do their best at all times for all patients.
    Medical leaders must be held accountable for enforcing that standard.

  2. Essentially ACOs will make physicians angry at patients who ruin their numbers. Rather than being coaches who give the best advise and spur their patients on to better behavior and better health, the physicians will become stern taskmasters, eager to drop or refer patients who are non-compliant, for whatever reason.

    Some patients just find it hard to do what is in their own best interests, and perhaps they need the doctors with the best skills, the most patience and best bedside manner. ACOs will make these best doctors the most poorly reimbursed. How can we physicians be held accountable for things we cannot control?

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