Alice in Medical Care: Part IV

Thomas Sowell

3/5/2010 3:12:30 PM - Thomas Sowell

Some years ago, one of my favorite doctors retired. On my last visit to his office, he took some time to explain to me why he was retiring early and in good health.

Being a doctor was becoming more of a hassle as the years went by, he said, and also less fulfilling. It was becoming more of a hassle because of the increasing paperwork, and it was less fulfilling because of the way patients came to him.

He was currently being asked to Xerox lots of records from his files, in order to be reimbursed for another patient he was treating. He said it just wasn't worth it. Whoever was paying-- it might have been an insurance company or the government-- would either pay him or not, he said, but he wasn't going to jump through all those hoops.

My doctor said that doctor-patient relationships were not the same as they had been when he entered the profession. Back then, people came to him because someone had recommended him to them, but now increasing numbers of people were sent to him because they had some group insurance plan that included his group.

He said that the mutual confidence that was part of the doctor-patient relationship was not the same with people who came to his office only because his name was on some list of eligible physicians.

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The loss of one doctor-- even a very good doctor-- may not seem very important in the grand scheme of heady medical care "reform" and glittering phrases about "universal health care." But making the medical profession more of a hassle for doctors risks losing more doctors, while increasing the demand for treatment.

A study published in the November 2009 issue of the Journal of Law & Economics showed that a rise in the cost of medical liability insurance led to more reductions of hours of medical service supplied by older doctors than among younger doctors.

Younger doctors, more recently out of medical school and often with huge debts to pay off for the cost of that expensive training, may have no choice but to continue working as hard as possible to try to recoup that huge investment of money and time.

Younger doctors will probably continue working, even if bureaucrats load them down with increasing amounts of paperwork and the government continues to lower reimbursements for Medicare, Medicaid and-- heaven help us-- the new proposed "universal health care" legislation that is supposed to "bring down the cost of medical care."

The confusion between lowering costs and refusing to pay the costs can have a real impact on the supply of doctors. The real costs of medical care include both the financial conditions and the working conditions that will insure a continuing supply of both the quantity and the quality of doctors required to maintain medical care standards for a growing number of patients.

Although younger doctors may be trapped in a profession that some of them might not have entered if they had known in advance what all its pluses and minuses would turn out to be, there are two other important groups who are in a position to decide whether or not it is worth it.

Those who are old enough to have paid off their medical school debts long ago, and successful enough that they can afford to retire early, or to take jobs as medical consultants, can opt out of the whole elaborate third-party payment system and its problems. What the rising costs of medical liability insurance has already done for some, other hassles that bureaucracies and politicians create can have the same effect for others.

There is another group that doesn't have to put up with these hassles. These are young people who have reached the stage in their lives when they are choosing which profession to enter, and weighing the pluses and minuses before making their decisions.

Some of these young people might prefer becoming a doctor, other things being equal. But the heady schemes of government-controlled medicine, and the ever more bloated bureaucracies that these heady schemes will require, can make it very unlikely that other things will be equal in the medical profession.

Paying doctors less and hassling them more may be some people's idea of "lowering the cost of medical care," but it is instead refusing to pay the costs-- and taking the consequences.