Op-ed: Health reform requires listening to doctors

The following op-ed was published on January 29th, 2010 in The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog.

With health reform’s future in peril, President Obama noted in his State of the Union address that the process has “left most Americans wondering what’s in it for them.”

For reform to succeed, the problems facing most patients today, ranging from their deteriorating relationship with doctors to the consequences of medical malpractice, have to be better addressed.

As a primary care physician, I often see patients frustrated by rushed office visits or waiting weeks for an appointment. Without valuing the time doctors spend with their patients, or effectively increasing the primary care workforce, these problems will only worsen if health coverage expands.

Furthermore, the absence of meaningful liability reform means patients injured by medical mistakes will continue to remain in a dysfunctional system where 1 in 6 receives no financial recourse, the average case takes five years to resolve, and 54 cents of every compensated dollar go to pay legal fees.

And according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, serious efforts to reform medical malpractice could save as much as $54 billion over the next decade; a substantial sum being ignored as lawmakers struggle to cope with health reform’s costs.

But the imperfections of the bills before Congress doesn’t mean that the status quo is a viable alternative. If health reform is unsuccessful, more people will join the millions of Americans without health coverage, and medical costs will continue to spiral upwards. Both will have serious consequences for future generations, as it will be unlikely that either political party will re-approach the issue anytime soon.

A recent Gallup poll noted that 73 percent of patients trusted their doctor’s opinion on health reform, surpassing the trust they had in health policy experts, Congress and even President Obama himself.

So to best convince patients, reformers need to garner widespread physician support; essential not only to pass any comprehensive measure, but to ensure its enduring success.

President Obama’s ability to convince enough doctors that reform will benefit their patients and facilitate the way physicians can best care for them, will be critical in determining health reform’s fate.