Thursday, May 28, 2009

Annals Internal Medicine commentary laments imminent death of internal medicine

Dr. David D. Nerenbert writing in the May 19,2009 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine offers his analysis of why internal medicine is dying;"the progressive devaluation of individualized clinical judgment". See here for abstract.Subscription is required for full text.

In the past,he continues, "careful thought was thought to be our forte".He correctly observes that a physician cannot do justice to the complex,complicated patients with multiple medical problem in fifteen minutes. There is no time for careful thought and still stay in practice, at least not if you play the Medicare and third party player game. Can you do it all in fifteen minutes?Of course, you can't.Why are we even trying? How did the hour we used to spend for new patients and perhaps 30 minutes for return visits morph into the now prototypical 10 to 15 minute farce?" Because we can't afford to spend the time any more because the per visit charges are too low and we are trying to mitigate the economic loss by increasing volume.

Is it really all about money? Is the root cause simply the imposition of price controls by Medicare and the third party payers generally following suit. The practice pattern of internists in the 70s and early 80s of spending time with patients in the office AND caring for patients in the hospitals was made possible by the income level internists enjoyed in that era. Not only did the practice patterns depend on a reasonable level of income but the practice environment-bereft as it was of mandates and insurance company driven requirements-was one in which there was a strong sense of professional identity and satisfaction and prestige among other physicians,patients and others in the health care endeavor. And then the price controls from Medicare came on the scene around 1991 and gradually everything changed.See here for my earlier attempt at summarizing the events that marked the beginning of the end of the internist as we once knew him.

Is the rise of NPs and PAs and the birth and development of hospitalists based on the same economic causes? The consequences of price controls are well known and include: shortages, poor quality and black markets or rationing by favoritism. We have all of that except black markets (unless retainer practices are ultimately outlawed and then we will see the full spectrum of the effects of wage controls)

A small single digit increase in Medicare payments, federal funds to increase the number of internists trained, or a plan to help with medical student loans will not fix the internist's plight. More residency slots are not the answer when the current slots do not fill now.Those who choice a retainer practice may be able to sidestep the problem on an individual basis.Hospitalists can salvage one aspect of the practice on the internists of the 80's but some worry they can do so only at the pleasure of the hospitals and there is no guarantee of that in the future.

The origin of the internists dilemma is government imposed price controls and tweaking the prices a bit and increasing the role of government in medical care will not fix the systemic problem. Mandating health insurance for everyone will not fix the problem of too few primary care doctors; it will make it worse. Again, I point to Massachusetts as the canary in the mine shaft. See here for recent update in waiting times. Dr.Nerenberts's suggestion of a pilot program with internists being on government salary to take care of Medicare patients is again to purpose a governmental solution to a government caused problem, and I think few internists, as upset as they are with the way things are now,would sign up for a salaried government job.

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