OBAMA TO AMA: Telling It Like It Is

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President Obama's speech to the AMA was a model of reason, clarity and vision. It raises the question of why the AMA needed to be lectured about the dilemma a doctor, particularly one in primary care, faces:

Our costly health care system is unsustainable for doctors like Michael Kahn in New Hampshire, who, as he puts it, spends 20 percent of each day supervising a staff explaining insurance problems to patients, completing authorization forms, and writing appeal letters; a routine that he calls disruptive and distracting, giving him less time to do what he became a doctor to do and actually care for his patients.

The President's speech even quoted Newt Gingrich: 

As Newt Gingrich has rightly pointed out, we do a better job tracking a FedEx package in this country than we do tracking a patient's health records.The speech reminded me of a conversation a few days ago with a close friend who said casually, "Face it, Abraham, medicine is corrupt."  I paused. I sputtered. I was about to say something. But I shut up.  I shut up because (as the President explains) whether I like it or not, I am a beneficiary of a system of :

 . .  incentives where the more tests and services are provided, the more money we pay. And a lot of people in this room know what I'm talking about. It is a model that rewards the quantity of care rather than the quality of care; that pushes you, the doctor, to see more and more patients even if you can't spend much time with each; and gives you every incentive to order that extra MRI or EKG, even if it's not truly necessary. It is a model that has taken the pursuit of medicine from a profession - a calling - to a business.

We can quibble on the ways the President proposes to fund the changes he proposes, but I don't think we can quibble on the moral imperative to change the way we do business. As the President says,

"You entered this profession to be healers - and that's what our health care system should let you be."



(For another take on the speech from a thoughtful physician who also happens to be in New Hampshire, see KevinMD.com)




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Abraham Verghese is an author, physician and med school professor. He is the author of Cutting for Stone and his writing has appeared in many major publications. More

Abraham Verghese is a physician and writer. His third book and first novel, Cutting for Stone, was published by Knopf in 2009. He is also known for two acclaimed non-fiction works, My Own Country, which was based on his experiences working with persons living with HIV in Johnson City, Tennessee; that book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was made into a movie. He followed that with The Tennis Partner, also a New York Times notable book and a national bestseller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times , The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The Wall Street Journal as well as many medical journals. Verghese is board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and infectious diseases. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned his MFA. He currently practices and teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine where he is a tenured Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine.
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