Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘heinlein’

Cost + Quality + Convenience = Value

My wife Beth and I had a rather spirited discussion about how we in the U.S. might be able to pay for the healthcare of our citizens. Being ever practical, and also owning the job of writing the checks that pay for the “health insurance” our company offers its associates (including us), Beth in effect is arguing for a national consensus on something we might describe as a baseline ‘value’ for healthcare. Others would label her concept a ‘floor’, but you get the idea.

What Beth intuitively understands is the tension between cost, quality, and convenience. You pick a baseline or a floor level of value and offer that to everyone. With training as a nurse and 15 years in healthcare administration, her idea of what constitutes the sum of cost, quality, and convenience naturally overweights the integers for cost and quality: outcomes should be essentially equal across the board at the baseline or floor level, and the costs of achieving that should be in some way equitably shouldered by something we could describe as “society”. Very practical. A strategy that lends itself to being observable and measurable.

What’s the rub? Well, only two of the three elements that make up value are covered. To obtain an agreed upon level of medical outcomes (mortality, morbidity, longevity, etc.) the cost is covered. Ah, but HOW you obtain those outcomes is still a variable. It is the FLOOR of value that is guaranteed. Our family is experienced a bit of this recently with Beth’s Mom. After a hospitalization she was living in a setting that ws providing excellent care at a reasonable cost, but it was a setting that did not provide any extras; it was old, not very pretty, and she could  have had a roommate. Her (and her daughters’) experience, what we might call “convenience” or  in our formula, was found to be lacking. The girls opted to move her to a nicer setting, one that will eventually involve a higher cost because of the enhancements to the experience, with no change in the already best possible outcome, or quality.

Therein lies the problem with any discussion about literally anything that we might discuss as a “right”. Is everyone entitled to anything other than the minimal amount of convenience/experience necessary to obtain the best outcome at an affordable cost?

If we examine food, we find something quite similar. No one among us would say that X Million people should go without food. Indeed, we don’t even really talk about true hunger in the U.S. anymore, we talk about “food insecurity”, the concern that we may become hungry. By the same token, though, no one asserts that everyone is entitled to the same quality of food. Not even a little bit. No, quite the contrary, all that is discussed is cost and convenience (access).

Now, of course, we in the CrossFit world (and to a degree in the medical world) argue that quality is an ineluctable part of nutrition, that one must extend the equation outside of food alone so that an explicit choice is made that prioritizes quality calories over other purchases (cell phone, cable, fancy car, etc.). While this is accurate and proper I believe that we can reasonably quarantine nutrition and keep it separate from other needs, at least for the purpose of our discussion. The universal concept of the interplay between cost, quality, and convenience holds true in nutrition/food on a global, grand policy making level:

You can pick any two, but only two, when you are declaring what is the minimally acceptable level.

My formulaic approach to the coverage of needs has a little wrinkle that should be mentioned: quality cannot be increased ad infinitum. In all examples we might evaluate there is a practical limit to the ability to improve quality or outcomes. The law of diminishing returns arrives in the form of the asymptote as quality rises. On the other hand, cost and convenience are unbound and can rise almost infinitely. It is the alcohol in a drink that confers the health benefit; the same outcome occurs no matter what you drink. One person’s jug wine from Costco is another person’s Chateau Lafite served in the Gulfstream V. You get the picture.

What will become of our conversations about issues such as healthcare? Will we arrive at a similar juncture to the one we have now in food, clothing, and shelter? Where quality (outcomes) and cost issues are addressed and everyone is left to make their own call on convenience/experience? Beth can’t see how it can be any other way. Me? I’m much less optimistic. That old “want vs. need” thing just keeps popping up. Confusion arises when a truly generous people confuse what people want with what they need. Need is measurable and therefore finite, whereas want is neither. We can, and should, all work to pick up the check for the needs of each. “Want”, on the other hand, is the proverbial “free lunch”, and we as a society will need to agree on that before we can even begin to discuss begin to talk about the mechanics of paying the bill.

TANSTAAFL. Heinlein was right.


Medicine is a Harsh Mistress

“You can have anything. You can’t have everything.”

A rather unlikely combination of players got me to thinking about “having it all”. You know, the perfect job, marriage, home, life. Like Streisand when she sings “Everything”, the life of “I don’t want much, I just want more”. Friday night and Saturday morning were spent in the company of 5 or 6 physicians who  can only be described as “Alpha Females”; this morning’s reading included a piece on Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh.

What do Harbaugh and my young professional colleagues have in common? Well, they are in the midst of trying to have it all. While these ridiculously successful eye surgeons are more aware of the costs of their quest than Harbaugh, when pushed they are no less apologetic, no less committed to seeing it through to its logical conclusions.

On the surface it would seem that Harbaugh is poised to live a comically outlandish exmple of a successful coaching life. A winning record at a traditionally over-run college program (Stanford) followed by a Super Bowl game in the NFL (losing to his brother’s Ravens), and now head coach at his Alma mater. It’s all so very believable if you read the article quickly, but there it is in the fine print: “…his 14 year old daughter remains in California with her mother, Harbaugh’s first wife.”

Rut roh. A little bit of Heinlein creeping in here.

Much has been written about the plight of the “successful woman”. Indeed, I’ve written on women in medicine and the fallacy of “having it all” (and been quite enthusiastically eviscerated for having done so). My female colleagues sat with me around a table and over wine we talked at length about their lives. How busy they are in their day jobs. How the added time requirements of being acknowledged super-experts in parts of our shared field add to the challenges of being mothers and wives in nearly direct proportion to the gravitas it adds to their professional stature. We were all away from home on a Friday night for a meeting Saturday morning and the privilege of flying home that afternoon.

“N”, a colleague nearly 15 years younger who is also (I hope) becoming a friend, opined that she felt like she was “half-assing” everything except our shared endeavors as subject experts. That she only felt fully successful, comfortable, and in some way validated, in the company of her expert consultant peers. The moment, shared with knowing nods by each woman present, was brief.

Personally, I am late to this consulting game, roughly at the same “level” as colleagues in their mid- to late-30′s (I am 55). Barring some unlikely stroke of good fortune (e.g. I might actually be as smart as I think I am, and someone might actually agree), I will end my career rising no higher than the middle of the pack. Why is that? Well, let’s spend a moment with Heinlein, as my wife Beth and I did when I was ~34.

Just like my very impressive young colleagues, when I was in my early 30′s I was approached to offer insight into the needs and desires of my generation of physicians. Being a male physician I acknowledged the advantage of fewer societal expectations regarding responsibilities outside my career, and the massive leg up from a spouse who left her career behind to run the domestic side of the team. Good, bad, or indifferent, what my wife and I did then was explicitly calculate the cost of that success.

In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Heinlein’s lunar society is run as a nearly pure libertarian experiment, fueled by a single philosophy: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Your mother told you the same thing: there is a consequence to everything you do (or don’t do). What Beth and I did, what Harbaugh didn’t do and what my colleagues only later have done, is prospectively calculate the costs of success in one domain paid out from the accounts of the rest of a life’s domains. Gains in one almost always come at a cost or loss in others. Certain of the effect on our family (despite my gender-driven advantages), the costs to be paid at home, Beth and I opted to forgo the opportunity. For 10+ years the only place I went was home for dinner.

What was the cost to me for having taken myself off the consulting carousel? Who knows? I might have been a certifiable big deal in the world of my day job. For sure, the White family left a lot of money on the table. Harbaugh chose differently and left a 14 year old daughter, and all that represents, in California. My young colleagues, the Alpha Females who are quite rightfully sitting at the table of experts despite their tender years? What will be gained, and at what cost? We shall see…they shall see.

In the end, Heinlein (and your mother) continues to be right, no matter what currency we use to calculate cost: TANSTAAFL.


TANSTAAFL And “Mommy-Track” Docs

Uh oh. Now they’ve gone and done it. Someone has gone and rained the facts down on what is generally considered a feel–good story in American medicine, the dramatic increase in female doctors in America. In response to Dr. Herbert Parde’s “The Coming Doctor Shortage” article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Curtis Markel pointed out that there is a difference between the raw, gross number of physicians in America, and the EFFECTIVE number of practicing physicians.  Not only that, but he had the audacity to point out that roughly 50% of newly–minted American trained physicians are women, and that many of them do not practice full-time.

The NERVE of that guy. I mean, how dare he bring facts into a discussion of physician manpower? Wait a minute… maby that’s it right there… MANPOWER. This must be just another incidence of the male–dominated world of medicine cracking down on those female party-crashers. Except for the fact that…no… this really isn’t a case of that at all. Just an illumination of a significant part of a more general trend. When we look at the economics of physician resources the more important statistic is NOT the number of physicians working, but the number of physician–HOURS that are worked. Physicians newly minted in the United States in the last 20 years work fewer hours per week and annually than their predecessors, and “mommy–track” docs work even less.

That, my friends, is a fact–based reality of healthcare economics in the United States. The fact remains that Heinlein was right: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The facts do not care what you think. They do not they do not care how you feel about them. They do not go away and they do not change if you try to change the topic or bury them with obfuscation. Torn between self–righteousness (I’m staying home for my children) and righteous indignation (I work HARD), the mommy-track docs have fired back.

Unfortunately, their return fire has been little but emotion-loaded pellets, rather than fact–filled ordinance. An ER physician talks about choosing to work fewer shifts in order to tend to her family, or an ailing parent, or even to avoid “burnout”, and conflates the effects of these personal choices with her feelings about the effects of inequities between the compensation for so–called cognitive versus procedural specialties. Another talks about wanting to work part time with the thought that this will make her a more effective doctor. Still others try to shift the conversation from the “mommy–track” to general lifestyle considerations: I wish to “paint, or cycle, or just read.” All well and good, of course, but all also well beside the point. The fact remains that women physicians tend to work fewer hours than their male colleagues, those who have children take long stretches of time away from practicing medicine to do so, and both men and women recently trained tend to work measurably fewer hours than their predecessors did and do.

Sorry. You CAN’T have it all. Thinking that you can is a fantasy; it’s just not consistent with a fact–based reality. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In medicine or anywhere else.

Please don’t get me wrong. I personally find absolutely nothing inherently wrong with working fewer hours or taking time out to have children. Back in the day there was often a terrible price to be paid because of the traditional work ethic of the American (mostly male) physician. The landscape is littered with the carcasses of medical marriages that didn’t survive this “profession first” rule. Substance abuse was rampant among these physicians, and the physician suicide rate was (and is) a multiple of the general population’s. Younger physicians, mommy–track and otherwise, are certainly onto something. The life balance that is so important to them is healthier in almost all respects, at least as far as the physicians themselves go. But in terms of our health care system as a whole? Nope. The facts say we either need more doctors, or doctors need to work more hours. To say that you, the physician, are making these choices for anything other than lifestyle reasons, to blame some reimbursement inequity or other external factor is disingenuous at best.  My mother used to call it “the consequences of your decisions”, but I prefer Heinlein. TAANSTAFL.

While there are some medical specialties that are very lucrative (neurosurgery, gastroenterology), the income that physicians take-home is generally reflective of how hard they work. How many hours per week they to spend doing clinical work. How much they actually do in each of those hours. General surgeons tend to make more money then family practitioners,  not so much because they get paid all that very much for any individual thing they do, but because they tend to work lots of hours, and they tend to do lots of work in each one of those hours. Nights, weekends, dinnertime, and long after Conan has called it a night, general surgeons are at work because the work needs to be done. The vast majority of primary care physicians work 40 hour weeks, hours that look more like the proverbial banker’s day than the surgeon’s. Nothing wrong with that, and neither is this always the case. I have a friend who is a very successful, family practitioner who is blessed and cursed with both ADD and insomnia. I think he works more than anyone I know, doctor or otherwise, and his income is consequently more like that of a general surgeon.

Perhaps an illuminating example would be the decision I made approximately five years ago to totally change the way I practice my specialty. Suffering from a severe case of professional and business dissatisfaction, I left an extremely successful practice (a practice that remains extremely successful in my absence) and started Skyvision, a very different type of eye care practice. (As an aside, when they finally got around to replacing me, it took TWO 30–something year-old physicians to do so.) At Skyvision I see many fewer patients each day, and consequently have a dramatically lower income. When presented with the Zen–like question “do you wish to be wealthy or happy” I chose happy. The decision has made me quite “UN–wealthy”, but I really am quite happy.

That is the fact–based reality of physician economics, my  little micro–economic example to explain the macro–economic effects of physician–hours versus physician numbers. There’s no one to blame. No government conspiracy. No specialty vs. primary care inequity. I am the sole bread–winner in a home with a “mommy–track” Mom. There are more eye doctors where I live because some of the eye doctors who are already here, mommy–track or otherwise, are now working less.

Are mommy–track docs the sole problem why we face a pending physician shortage in the United States? Of course not. We have a decades–long history of new physicians working fewer hours than their predecessors, a relatively static number of new physicians being trained, and an ever–expanding population of patients who need the care of these physicians. No matter how they might FEEL about it, and no matter how they might feel about having it pointed out, the fact remains that, on average, newly–minted doctors work fewer hours than their predecessors, and mommy–track docs, on average, work fewer hours than their peers. Wanna stay home with your kids? Cool. 12 weeks to bond with the new baby? Sure, who WOULDN’T want that. Just “man up” and face the facts–you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Be a grown up and accept the consequences of the choices that you have made, and accept this gracefully when someone else points that out in the Wall Street Journal or elsewhere.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody, somewhere, always pays.