If a doctor doesn’t do excess testing, he isn’t going to be able to live

An excerpt from Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician.

After the blowup with Rajiv, I committed myself to changing my standoffish ways. Rajiv had been urging me for some time to meet socially with his physician friends in a relaxed atmosphere away from the hospital, and so there I was a few weeks later at a doctors’ party in Manhasset, a tony suburb on the North Shore of Long Island. The host, a Sikh internist with a bright red turban, greeted me warmly when I arrived. “Rajiv is my best friend,” he said, putting his arm around me and showing me to the foyer where shoes were stowed. “We have heard so much about you.”

I found Rajiv in the dining room playing an Indian card game called teen patti. He was cracking jokes, holding court, acting every bit like the Indian mensch he was reputed to be. When he saw me, he bounded over, obviously tipsy. “I’m glad you came,” he said, giving me a hug. He handed me an empty tumbler. “Come on, Kapoor,” he cried to the host. “My bro is here. Break out the good shit!”

Rajiv went back to his card game while I stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. Turning to the oncologist sitting next to him, he said, “All right, asshole, now place a real bet. It isn’t even one co-pay.” When the doctor quickly folded, Rajiv said, “Don’t worry, the next bone marrow biopsy is on me.”

Someone piped in: “The next anemia consult is on me.”

I went to the kitchen and poured myself a Scotch. Out in the living room, a group of mostly male doctors were relaxing on couches and foldout chairs, drinking Black Label and chatting comfortably. I sat down next to a lanky Gujarati doctor in private practice whom I’d met several times on the wards at LIJ. “Haven’t seen you in a while,” I said, trying to sound pleasant and familiar. He nodded politely and turned his attention back to the conversation.

“I tell you, medicine has been taken out of our hands and put into the hands of uneducated people,” a Punjabi internist perched at the edge of the sofa was saying. Apparently he had sold his practice about a year prior and was now working part- time at a hospital in Brooklyn. He recalled some of the annoyances when he was practicing full-time. “Insurance companies would put restrictions on almost every medication. I’d get a call: ‘Drug not covered. Write a different prescription or get preauthorization.’ If I ordered an MRI, I’d have to explain to a clerk why I wanted to do the test. It was a big, big headache.”

When he decided to work for a hospital, he figured there would be more freedom to practice his specialty. “But managed care is like a magnet attached to you. They say you didn’t take authorization for this test. I tell the girl, ‘Why should I take authorization from you? You’re not a doctor. You just read about this in some book.’ ”

“It is getting so bad,” someone responded. “They want us to practice perfect medicine, but they put up barriers at every inch.”

“I have to spend hours on the phone getting precertification,” a Jewish family doctor said. “I order a drug and the patient calls me up and says the insurance company won’t approve it, and somehow it is my responsibility to fight the company for them. Part of me wants to say, ‘I ordered the drug; I did the right thing. Now fight your own battles.’ ”

“People think we are greedy,” Dr. Oni, the Nigerian internist with “consultitis,” declared. “But look at these insurance companies. For some of them it is written into the medical director’s contract to deny every fourth admission.” (I had heard a similar charge from a billing clerk at my hospital.)

“Thirty percent of my admissions are being denied,” the Punjabi internist replied. “There is a forty-five-day limit on the appeal. If you don’t bill in time, you lose everything. You’re discussing this with some guy on the phone, and you think, You’re sitting there, I’m sitting here. How do you know anything about this patient?”

“It is all about the money,” Oni asserted. “Look at these capitated insurance programs. They say they will pay fifteen dollars a year per patient. Now, can you see a patient for fifteen dollars? Even if you see her once a year, is that enough?”

“Why did you sign the contract?” someone demanded.

“Because doctors are not united,” Oni replied to murmurs of agreement. “If you say no, you know Dr. B or Dr. C will say yes. They will get the contract and the patients. It is still money, even if it is not a lot.

“An internist like me,” he went on. “Let’s say you want a certain salary to meet your family’s expenses. That means you have to double it to pay your overhead. I used to have a nurse. That’s one hundred thousand dollars a year. A physician’s assistant is ninety thousand. A nurse practitioner is one hundred and ten thousand. Who can afford it? You have to bring in half a million just to achieve your salary goal. I used to see fifteen patients a day. Now reimbursement is so low I have to see at least thirty. If I stay in the room more than ten minutes, my assistant will call me and tell me to hurry up.”

He said he was doing a plethora of tests — eye exams, audiometry, pulmonary function tests, even Holter monitoring — to generate revenue in the office. “You ask yourself, which doctor would you want to go to? One who does every test — never mind that they are normal” — he laughed bitterly — “or one who doesn’t do such a thorough job? A lot of this is also being driven by patients asking for tests.”

I’d heard a similar assessment from Chaudhry. Quietly listening, I nursed my drink.

The Punjabi internist said that he used to work with a pulmonologist. “To bill for lung spirometry, he would have the patient quickly blow into a tube. He didn’t even look at the results. We did stress tests, too. We knew who was going to be normal. We avoided the high-risk cases, the asthmatics and the hypertensives.” He laughed. “Those we would send to a cardiologist.”

A gastroenterologist with waxy brown hair said: “If a doctor doesn’t do excess testing, forget it, he isn’t going to be able to live. This is the only profession in the world where you can provide a service and not know if you are going to be paid for it.”

Oni said he had received payments from a mobile echo company for referring patients for cardiac ultrasounds. Though he no longer participated in these contracts, he was open about the fees — about $100 per patient, paid in cash — and he saw nothing wrong with it. “As internists we don’t do procedures, so we have to figure out another way to make money. But it isn’t hard once you figure out how to do it.”

“We don’t clock the number of minutes when we talk with our patients,” someone said. “We don’t hang up the phone as lawyers may do if they are not going to get paid. No, we listen to patients and answer their questions, however long it takes.”

The family doctor suggested that patients call a toll number if they wanted to speak to their physicians. “Sure, I’ll talk to you,” he said. “Just call this 888 number. I’ll talk to you as long as you want. I’ll even talk dirty to you.” People laughed. “My lawyer always tells me, ‘If I’m thinking about your case, even while I’m taking a leak, you’re getting charged three hundred and fifty dollars an hour.’ ”

Oni said, “I have a cousin who is an OB/GYN. He is paying one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year for malpractice insurance. As an obstetrician, you have to earn five hundred thousand dollars just to make ends meet. That is why people don’t want to do it anymore.”

“I did obstetrics,” someone replied. “They used to pay fifty-five hundred dollars for fourteen office visits plus a delivery when you stay up all night. Now they pay twenty-four hundred. You think that’s reasonable? Your wife delivered. Is that enough money to make it worthwhile?” He shook his head, disgusted. “The problem is, they cut the money, they took away the autonomy, but they didn’t take away any of the responsibility.”

“It is getting tougher and tougher,” the only female doctor in the room declared. “Everyone is looking for procedures. I feel sorry for the patients. We’re sending them here and there, for this test and that. Sometimes I tell them, ‘Go home. You’ve had every test. There is nothing more for me to do.’ I said to my husband, in a few years, when the mortgage is paid off, I want to do something else. This is not the concept of medicine I had when I started.”

Back in the kitchen, I poured myself another drink. Rajiv came over. Now drunk, he slapped me hard on the back. “You should talk to Dr. Shah,” he said. “Give him your card, your cell phone, your beeper. Tell him to call you anytime.”

I nodded and looked away.

“I still can’t believe you came,” Rajiv said. “Are you having a good time?”

Sandeep Jauhar is a cardiologist and author of Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician.

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