Health care is on a different trajectory from most other businesses. Why is that?

Health care is on a different trajectory from most other businesses today. It’s a little hard to understand why.

In business, mass market products and services have always competed on price or perceived quality. Think Walmart or Mercedes-Benz, even the Model T Ford. But the real money and the real excitement in business is moving away from price and measurable cookie-cutter quality to the intangibles of authority, influence, and trust. This, in a way, is a move back in time to preindustrial values.

In primary care, unbeknownst to many pundits and administrators and unthinkable for most of the health tech industry, price and quality are not really even realistic considerations. In fact, they are largely unknown and unknowable.

The real price in primary care isn’t just the cost of each doctor visit. It is the cost of the total number of visits needed to solve a problem, and also the cost of the various tests, procedures, and treatments each primary care doctor orders when solving that problem or managing a particular condition. This can vary enormously.

In accountable care organizations, actual costs are compared to presumed or projected costs, which are based on hierarchical condition categories (HCCs), which aren’t well known or commonly used by primary care doctors. To a degree, you can game this baseline cost calculation by mastering HCCs (Medicare Advantage plans’ financial well-being hinges on making the most of this; this is why they offer doctors $150 to sign off on a list of each patient’s known or suspected expensive diagnoses).

Quality in health care is largely in the eye of the beholder. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here: A patient population’s immunization rates or aspirin use or non-use (depending on shifts in knowledge) are not comprehensive measures of quality. Accuracy of diagnosis, if anything, is. But who is measuring that? You might say “those who can’t practice medicine measure it.” That’s why most quality measures these days are of things you don’t need a medical degree or license to accomplish.

Primary care, in the eyes of our patients, is instead about relationship, authority, trust, and (gasp) convenience. This is what people in most other businesses talk about all the time. It is what even tech and medicine pundits, EMR companies and many other middlemen want for themselves. They don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of price or quality standards set by others. Yet they want mass market medicine for the masses, not relationship-based care.

Driving 200 miles between my two clinics, I often listen to audiobooks. Once I finished my board review, I turned to business books. “Influence,” “Authority,” “Brand,” “Story,” and “Content” have replaced “Quality,” “Six Sigma,” and “Excellence.” In business now, it is all about standing out and setting your own standards. It is about building relationships with and listening to consumers.

In health care, I see the paradox that insurers are now reaching out to patients to check up on them while at the same time making doctors work so hard and so fast producing “encounters” that there is less and less time for us to talk with our patients when we are with them, and never mind on the phone in between visits. Do they really think patients wouldn’t rather see their own doctors having enough breathing room to talk to them than have some strangers from out of state they never met calling to check in?

We have data that the doctor-patient relationship influences outcomes. From hospitalization rates to prescription adherence to effectiveness of treatments for mental health diagnoses, it is well known that the doctor is a large part of the treatment.

Doctors have increasingly become part of multicenter systems that, in spite of efforts like patient-centered medical home recognition, simply have become too large and impersonal to foster the kind of customer relationships the business world is now realizing are necessary.

Between the bottom-line objectives of such health care organizations and the bureaucracies of health insurers, doctors and patients are clearly not in complete charge of their own relationships anymore.

So what happens with those relationship dependent outcomes when so many doctors feel like lineworkers, rather than professionals? What happens to their ability to nurture those relationships, gain that authority and earn that trust?

What happens if they lose it altogether?

There are modern, big companies who listen to their customers, even research and anticipate their customers’ needs. There are companies that empower their employees to solve customer problems, give refunds and do extras. There are companies who treat employees like owners or even offer them actual ownership.

Health care could do some more of that.

But there is more, lest we forget: Doctors aren’t just employees.

Who has the license to practice medicine? Who places the needle or scalpel? Who selects the medication? Who says “I’m sorry, we did everything we could” or “Congratulations, it’s a beautiful baby girl”?

Salespeople, YouTube stars and business leaders give a lot of thought to their customer relationships, their personal authority and the essentials of building and maintaining trust.

Are we doctors doing enough of that? Those things are ours to claim, and to strive for. Even if a big corporation issues our paycheck.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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