Eyes Bloodshot, Doctors Vent Their Discontent
By SANDEEP JAUHAR, M.D.
A doctor in his late 30s, he has been in practice for six years, mostly as a solo practitioner. But he told me he recently had decided to go into partnership with another cardiologist; his days, he said, will be â€œtotally busy.â€?
â€œYour days arenâ€™t busy enough already?â€? I asked.
The waiting room was packed. He had a full schedule of appointments, and after he was done with his office patients, he was going to round at two hospitals.
He smiled wanly. â€œJust look at my eyes.â€?
They were bloodshot.
â€œThis whole week I havenâ€™t slept more than about six hours a night.â€?
I asked when his work usually got done.
â€œIt is never done,â€? he replied, shaking his head. â€œSee this pile?â€?
He pointed to five large manila packages on a shelf above his desk. â€œThese are reports I still have to finish.â€?
As a physician, I could empathize. I too often feel overwhelmed with paperwork. But my friendâ€™s discontent seemed to run much deeper than that. Unfortunately, he is not alone. I have been hearing physician colleagues voice a level of dissatisfaction with medical practice that is alarming.
In a survey last year of nearly 2,400 physicians conducted by a physician recruiting firm, locumtenens.com, 3 percent said they were not frustrated by nonclinical aspects of medicine. The level of frustration has increased with nearly every survey.
â€œIt will take real structural change in the work environment for physician satisfaction to improve,â€? Dr. Mark Linzer, an internist at the University of Wisconsin who has done extensive research on physician unhappiness, told me. â€œFortunately, the data show that physicians are willing to put up with a lot before giving up.â€?
Not long ago, fed up with what he perceived as a loss of professional autonomy, Dr. Bhupinder Singh, 42, a general internist in New York, sold his practice and went to work part time at a hospital in Queens.
â€œIâ€™d write a prescription,â€? he told me, â€œand then insurance companies would put restrictions on almost every medication. Iâ€™d get a call: â€˜Drug not covered. Write a different prescription or get preauthorization.â€™ If I ordered an M.R.I., Iâ€™d have to explain to a clerk why I wanted to do the test. I felt handcuffed. It was a big, big headache.â€?
When he decided to work in a hospital, he figured that there would be more freedom to practice his specialty.
â€œBut managed care is like a magnet attached to you,â€? he said.
He continues to be frustrated by payment denials. â€œThirty percent of my hospital admissions are being denied. Thereâ€™s a 45-day limit on the appeal. You donâ€™t bill in time, you lose everything. Youâ€™re discussing this with a managed-care rep on the phone and you think: â€˜Youâ€™re sitting there, Iâ€™m sitting here. How do you know anything about this patient?â€™Â â€?
Recently, he confessed, he has been thinking about quitting medicine altogether and opening a convenience store. â€œNinety percent of doctors I know are fed up with medicine,â€? he said.
And it is not just managed care. Stories of patients armed with medical knowledge gleaned from the Internet demanding antibiotics for viral illnesses or M.R.I. scans for routine symptoms are rife in doctorsâ€™ lounges. Malpractice worries also remain at the forefront of many physiciansâ€™ minds, compounded by increasing liability premiums that have forced many into early retirement.
In surveys, increasing numbers of doctors attest to diminishing enthusiasm for medicine and say they would discourage a friend or family member from going into the profession.
The dissatisfaction would probably not have reached such a fever pitch if reimbursement had kept pace with doctorsâ€™ expectations. But it has not.
Doctors are working harder and faster to maintain income, even as staff salaries and costs of living continue to increase. Some have resorted to selling herbs and vitamins retail out of their offices to make up for decreasing revenue. Others are limiting their practices just to patients who can pay out of pocket.
There are serious consequences to this discontent, the most worrisome of which is that it is difficult for doctors who are so unhappy to provide good care.
Another is a looming shortage of doctors, especially in primary care, which has the lowest reimbursement of all the medical specialties and probably has the most dissatisfied practitioners.
Last year, residency programs in family practice took only 1,096 graduating medical students, the fewest in the last two decades. The number increased just slightly this year. Students who do choose internal medicine increasingly are forgoing primary care for subspecialty practices like cardiology and gastroenterology.
â€œFor me itâ€™s an endless amount of work that I can never get through to do it properly,â€? said Dr. Jeffrey Freilich, 38, a primary-care physician on Long Island. â€œIâ€™m a bit compulsive. As an internist, I have to worry about working up so many conditions â€” anemia, thyroid problems and so forth. There is no time to do it all in a day.
â€œOn top of all that, there are all the colonoscopies and mammograms you have to arrange, and all the time on the phone getting preauthorizations. Then you have to track the patient down. And none of it is reimbursed.â€?
Many primary-care physicians have stopped seeing their patients when they are hospitalized, relying instead on hospitalists devoted to inpatient care. Internists have told me that it is prohibitively inefficient to drive to a hospital, find parking, walk to the wards, examine a patient, check laboratory tests and vital signs, talk to a nurse and write orders and a note â€” for just a handful of cases. They cannot afford to leave their offices long enough to do it.
The upshot is that the doctor who knows a patient best is often uninvolved in her care when she is hospitalized. This contributes to the poor coordination and wanton consultation that is so common in hospitals today.
â€œYears ago you had one or two doctors,â€? a hospitalized patient told me recently. â€œNow youâ€™ve got so many people coming in itâ€™s hard to know whoâ€™s who.â€?
A 10.6 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians is scheduled to take effect on July 1. Further cuts are planned in coming years. Many doctors have told lawmakers that if the cuts go through, they will stop seeing Medicare patients. But reimbursement cuts are only a small part of doctorsâ€™ woes today.
â€œI was naÃ¯ve,â€? Saeed Siddiqui said. â€œWhen I was a resident I thought it was enough to take good care of patients. But the real world is totally different.â€?