Making Lemons from Lemonade: Squeezing the Joy Out of Medicine

By Marilyn M. Singleton, M.D., J.D.

Scandal upon scandal has dominated the airwaves and the web. Other than those involved, we have no way of knowing the truth or misremembering of the allegations. But we do know it is beyond sad that our congressional representatives who have the privilege and honor to serve their country have used the public purse to whitewash their misdeeds. These critters certainly know how to drag a noble calling into the gutter.

In the case of medicine, it is not the few well-publicized bad apples, but government and corporations injecting themselves into clinical practice that is driving the down trajectory of patient care. The days of physician as independent member of the community are fast waning—thanks to those paragons who run our country.

According to an American Medical Association survey, by 2016 only 47.1 percent of practicing physicians owned their own practice. Another report noted that hospitals acquired 31,000 physician practices, a 50 percent increase, from 2012 to 2015.

Now UnitedHealth Group plans to purchase the physician group from DaVita, a chain of dialysis centers, adding to their urgent care and surgery centers. Insurers owning (enslaving?) physicians is hoped to contain costs. While innovation in improving delivery of medical care is laudable, it is not without risks. Patients likely will have fewer choices of physicians or be told whom to see. As far as insurance pricing, economists agree that more competition benefits consumers.

We must be wary: as these behemoths consume and control medical care, sins are mounting. A few transgressions include Northern California’s Sutter Health that intentionally destroyed 192 boxes of documents that employers and labor unions were seeking in a lawsuit that accuses Sutter of abusing its market power and charging inflated prices. Anthem, the second largest health insurer in the U.S., was fined $5 million by California’s Department of Managed Health Care for “flouting the law” in dealing with consumer complaints. In 2016, insurance company denials were overturned in nearly 70 percent of medical review cases. California had already fined Anthem more than $6 million collectively for grievance-system violations since 2002.

And the federal government has stacked the deck in its new Quality Payment Program that “adjusts” physicians’ government payments if they don’t comply with the complex metrics. First, electronic medical records are a must. On the clinical front, anesthesiologists are scored on the percentage of current smokers who abstain from cigarettes prior to anesthesia on the day of elective surgery or procedure. Is the anesthesiologist supposed to send a proctor home with the patient? How is patient compliance grafted on to a physician whom the patient just met—no matter how convincing the anti-smoking pitch?

And then for internists there are “Additional improvements in access as a result of QIN/QIO TA” [Quality Improvement Network/Quality Improvement Organization technical assistance]. Or participation in a QCDR that promotes use of patient engagement tools. And what is a QCDR? A qualified clinical data registry. “A QCDR is a CMS-approved entity (such as a registry, certification board, collaborative, etc.) that collects medical and/or clinical data…”

The new medicine is forcing the remaining independent physicians to devolve from trusted confidants to automatons in order to survive in medicine’s brave new world. And it is not so pleasant for the patients: the algorithms, electronic computer screens, and hospitalists taking over care often with no consultation with the primary care physician.

Call me old-fashioned, but I come from a line of private practitioners who provided “population health” by being an integral part of the community. The Bradfield Community Association of Lima, Ohio, was formed in 1938 and named after my grandfather, Joseph C. Bradfield, M.D., a World War I veteran and beloved physician. The San Diego Board of Supervisors adjourned in memory of the death of my father, E.B. Singleton, M.D., a Tuskegee flight surgeon and primary care physician who charged people what they could afford and accepted tamales as payment. He didn’t need to take classes on dealing with denied insurance claims or filling our government forms.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence said, “Without virtue there can be no liberty and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” Liberty is also the cornerstone of good medical care.

Ask yourself do government bureaucrats and nameless faceless insurers have the moral authority to tell us what is just in delivering medical care to our populace? If the current happenings do not convince you that you and your private physician are your best advocates, then nothing will.

I wish you love, peace, and joy in this blessed season.

Dr. Marilyn M. Singleton, MD, JD is a board-certified anesthesiologist and member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS).

Dr. Marilyn Singleton ran for Congress in California’s 13th District in 2012, fighting to give its 700,000 citizens the right to control their own lives.

While still working in the operating room, Dr. Marilyn Singleton attended UC Berkeley Law School, focusing on constitutional law and administrative law. She also interned at the National Health Law Program and has practiced both insurance and health law.

Dr. Marilyn Singleton has taught specialized classes dealing with issues such as the recognition of elder abuse and constitutional law for non-lawyers. She also speaks out about her concerns with Obamacare, the apology law and death panels.

Congressional candidate Dr. Marilyn Singleton presented her views on challenging the political elite to physicians at the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons annual meeting in 2012.

Follow Dr. Marilyn Singleton on Twitter @MSingletonMDJD

More info about Dr. Marilyn Singleton