The Destruction of American Medicine

By Greg Scandlen

The New York Times has published a sobering article by Gardiner Harris  which describes how quickly we have allowed the best health care system in the world to slip through our fingers.

The story keys off Dr. Ronald Sroka, a family practice physician in Crofton, MD. It says,

Handsome, silver-haired and likable, Dr. Sroka is indeed a modern-day Marcus Welby, his idol. He holds ailing patients’ hands, pats their thickening bellies, and has a talent for diagnosing and explaining complex health problems. Many of his patients adore him.

But he is being pushed into extinction by academics like David J. Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University who is quoted:

Those of us who think about medical errors and cost have no nostalgia — in fact, we have outright disdain — for the single practitioner like Marcus Welby.

Mr. Rothman’s disdain and his allies in the insurance industry and government bureaucracies are winning the war. The article explains:

The share of solo practices among members of the American Academy of Family Physicians fell to 18 percent by 2008 from 44 percent in 1986. And census figures show that in 2007, just 28 percent of doctors described themselves as self-employed, compared with 58 percent in 1970.

It’s enough to make you weep, but there is perhaps a sliver of good news. A friend sent the following e-mail to one of my discussion lists:

Last week, Senator Whitehouse came to northern Rhode Island to speak to his home community. He had largely an elderly and retired audience of about 300. His comments were focused on them as he spoke of how he would fight to retain Social Security and Medicare. The audience clapped politely. Whitehouse continued to discuss healthcare. He eventually came to speak about physicians, lighting upon the topic as to how our actual charge per service differs depending upon what insurance each person has. “Go ahead,” he said, “call a doctor and ask what they charge for a certain visit or procedure. They’ll ask what insurance you have.”

I rose and said “$50.” I introduced myself to the audience and said that I charge $50 for an office visit, that I don’t take insurance, and that as a result of the massive cost savings by not having a coding specialist, collections specialist, or billing overhead, and by not having to rent an office big enough to house all those people, I can charge a reasonable fee while each patient retains the confidence of knowing that no third party will have any of their private medical information, of knowing that there are really only two people in the room when we talk, and of trusting that I’m going to provide the treatment that they really need rather than the treatment some third party tells me I should be providing.

I expected that this largely Medicare-covered audience would shake their heads and whisper “dinosaur” under their breath. Instead, I received applause and a few dozen new patients the next day. Each said roughly the same: “I’d rather pay for the care I want than have insurance cover me for care I don’t want.”

If indeed most new physicians choose to look toward the type of practices described in the Times article, that will allow all the physicians who want to run their own lives to do so without worrying about whether they’ll have enough patients. There will always be patients willing to pay a reasonable fee out of pocket for the kind of care that can be delivered by doctors like Dr. Sroka.

While the bulk of American medicine may accept becoming little bureaucrats, doing the bidding of their masters in Washington, a sliver will simply offer their services to patients on a cash or concierge basis. These few may grow until medicine becomes once again the noble profession it once was.

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