How doctors choose which specialists they refer to

There is an aspect of professional sports that I greatly admire. This transcends the athleticism and skill of the athletes, the work ethic, coaching expertise, teamwork and the thrill of the game. This is one of the only institutions that is a pure meritocracy. The philosophy is simple and not blurred by arguments for diversity or massaging the qualifications for admission to serve another agenda. Coaches, managers and owners want the absolute best performing individuals for the job. And so do the players. I wish this ethos were contagious to the rest of us.

The practice of medicine is not a meritocracy, either in the manner that students are accepted into medical schools, or in how we physicians practice. For example, what criteria do physicians use when they select a consultant? The ideal response is self evident. A consultant should be chosen because that specialist is the best qualified and is readily available to serve the patient. Medicine, however, is not an ideal universe. Consultants are not routinely selected solely for clinical skill. In my experience, availability trumps clinical acumen for many referring physicians who want their patients seen expeditiously.

These points apply to all physicians who consult colleagues, but primary care physicians are the primary source of specialty consultations.

Here are some reasons, beyond medical quality, why certain medical specialists are chosen.

• Reciprocity –- patients are referred in both directions
• Personal relationships
• Corporate enforcement keeping consultations within the network
• Economic pressure exerted by consultants to maintain referrals. I have seen this happen.
• Specialist willingness to do tests and procedures on request
• Habit
• Patient or family request

Even if a consultant is selected for some of the above reasons, the patient may still be ably served. For example, if a patient needs a screening colonoscopy, it does not matter that the gastroenterologist be a world class endoscopist. A simple community scoper, even one who blogs, may be sufficient.

In my experience, most patients receive high quality consultant care. However, patients are entitled to know that there may be unseen reasons why their physicians choose specific consultants. We specialists are not entirely righteous either. When we consult other physicians, we are also responding to forces that are under the radar. I personally admit to this in my practice.

When I entered private practice 10 years ago, after 10 years of a salaried position, I naively believed that conscientious care and availability would be a winning strategy to build my practice. I have learned that the dynamics between primary care and specialty physicians are more complex, and that the path to private practice success is not linear.

In sports, it’s all about winning. In medicine, it’s also about how you play the game.

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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