As health care increasingly propels itself into the world of corporations and big business, it may seem like the practice of medicine has entered an irreversible new era. Gone are the days of good old Dr. Wilson in his solo private practice around the corner, loved and respected by all his patients and the community. Nowadays, it’s all about mega multi-specialty groups, health care mergers and hostile corporate takeovers.
Being someone who’s quite middle-of-the-road when it comes to politics, I’m not anti-big business by any means. Capitalism and globalization have produced countless benefits to humankind. Who can argue against companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google being an overall great positive for the world? But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that every industry is as amenable to big business as others. The service industry is the most prominent example. Humans being humans, we still crave uniqueness and personal relationships. This is something sadly lacking in the corporate world at large, where transience and temporary, fleeting interactions are the norms. Taking restaurants as another example, the most famous and loved eateries in any given town or city are seldom the big cookie-cutter chains, but the restaurants that are owned locally and provide their special menus and exceptional service. The experiment over the last couple of decades of turning health care into a corporate and big business entity may thus be doomed to fail for a few reasons:
1. Doctors and patients. It’s often difficult for business majors and the business leaders to grasp, but there is a unique relationship that exists between doctors and patients that are outside the realm of the business world. When a patient has a doctor who they like and trust, that’s who they want to go and see. It wouldn’t matter one jot if that doctor was wearing a white coat with a shiny corporate logo on it in a swanky office building, or whether they get given a slick customer service questionnaire to fill in afterward. As long as they still get all the other services they need (referrals to the right specialists, timely tests and investigations, etc.), patients are only interested in seeing their trusted doctor. It is the very essence of health care in its purest form — doctor plus patient — all else is up for debate.
2. Business and sensitivity rarely mix. Medicine is an arena like no other. It is a uniquely emotional field, where caring, compassion, empathy and a listening mean absolutely everything. Business, in general, is not known for these traits, and as dressed up as one may try to make it — business is always about the bottom line. Therefore, unlike other industries where it’s okay and understandable to be worried about money first, in health care and the practice of medicine, whenever the bottom line is perceived to enter the equation — business will always be seen as the “bad guy.”
3. Clash with doctors. As much as the profession of medicine may have found itself in a position where it needs to collaborate with big business over the last decade (and in fact, often ruled over by it now), the truth is that physicians are a smart and dedicated bunch of people who deeply resent that this has happened. We are also well aware of the ethical conflicts that are inevitably created. Unlike in other fields, where corporate goals can align between management and the front lines, doctors will always be on the side of their patients and never fail to be their biggest advocates.
4. Patients will dictate what they like. As with any industry, it’s the “customers” who show what they do and don’t appreciate. Patients see an opportunity to be treated in a more unique and personalized way. Whether it’s direct primary care, a change in policy that allows small practices to thrive again or a forward-thinking group of committed local physicians who are bucking the trend — patients will flood to these practices in droves. Out will be the retail clinics and any organization which treats patients like a herd of cows.
5. A possible bubble. Not so long ago, I wrote an article about a 28-year old MBA who told a physician where to round first. The article went a bit viral and clearly resonated with thousands of doctors. One of the most popular comments to the article was the theory that health care was in a bubble — leveraged on trillions of dollars of debt, similar to the housing market before 2008. Therefore, when that bubble bursts, we will be faced with absolutely no choice but to go back to medicine in its purest form: The doctor and the patient. The interaction that is most important ( regarding both medical care and economics).
Hopefully, medicine sees a big swing of the pendulum back to where it should be: A lifesaving service provided by dedicated and highly educated professionals, who direct health care leadership and policy. All while being in control of their profession and putting the patient first. Because when you dissect everything down and really think about it: it’s not just the ace of spades that the doctor and patient are holding — but the entire deck.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.
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