In the summer of 2020, unemployment in the United States soared. People stayed home and businesses shuttered. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses were affected more than others. Airlines, hotels, arts & entertainment, restaurants, oil & gas, auto parts & service, and recreational facilities were among the hardest hit.
Some people blamed business closures not the pandemic but instead on their governor’s or mayor’s public health orders. As a consequence, many politicians lobbied to pass laws restricting their governor’s or public health authority’s ability to impose these public health orders. Their argument is that if people did not have to wear masks and practice social distancing, that businesses will open back up and quickly return to normal capacity. But it is not the public health orders that are hurting businesses, it is the pandemic itself.
To get those businesses back open, customers’ fear of acquiring COVID-19 has to be eased. A person who goes out to eat at a restaurant, gets on an airplane, or spends a couple of hours in a movie theater wants to be sure that it won’t cost them their life. Customers want to feel safe and workers want to feel safe. The best way to create that perception of safety is to get everyone vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some U.S. demographic groups are suspicious of vaccination and many within those groups have stated that they will not get vaccinated. As vaccine availability increases, these vaccine hold-outs will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in business. How many people would go to a restaurant if their waiter is wearing a button that says “I’m proud to be a COVID anti-vaxxer”? As a larger percentage of Americans get vaccinated, those people who refuse to get vaccinated will increasingly be viewed as the ones holding back economic recovery.
If a customer gets salmonella or hepatitis A from contaminated food at a restaurant, there is the potential for liability of that restaurant. At the least, customers will avoid it and at worst, there can be civil litigation for damages from the sick customer. So far in the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses really have not faced liability because the infection is literally everywhere. Once the pandemic is better controlled in the United States, outbreaks of COVID-19 will be able to be traced to source locations, similar to outbreaks of salmonella and hepatitis A. Civil litigation may be more likely in that situation, particularly if a business owner went on record as being opposed to vaccination. At that point, it will become very expensive to be an anti-vaxxer.
The fastest way to get business such as restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, and gyms back up to full occupancy is to end the pandemic. We cannot make the pandemic end simply by passing legislation declaring that it to be over – the fastest way to make it end is to vaccinate all eligible people as quickly as possible.
Every year at this time, physician practice administrators hold their breath and wait for the annual relative value unit (RVU) revaluations by Medicare. This year, Medicare was delayed in releasing the “final rule” that dictates how physicians will be paid and the final report was not released until earlier this month (December 2020). As in past years, some specialties will have increased revenue and some will have decreased revenue. Here is the projections for the RVU changes in 2021.
So, why are there so much differences between specialties? There are two reasons. First, with the 2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule, the evaluation and management codes for outpatient visits were revised with a result that office visits are more highly valued than in the past. Medicare is required to keep overall physician reimbursement constant so when outpatient visits were more highly valued, other procedures and services necessarily had to be lower valued. Therefore, those specialties associated with a lot of outpatient office visits will see an overall increase in their Medicare payments. For this reason, endocrinology, rheumatology, hematology/oncology, and family practice will all see double digit increases from Medicare
Procedure-oriented specialties such as surgical specialties will see a decrease in Medicare payments. Because of the increase in RVUs associated with outpatient E/M codes, the Medicare “conversion factor” (the amount that Medicare pays physicians per RVU) will drop from $36.09 to $32.41 in order to stay budget neutral. Overall, this translates to physicians getting paid 10% less per RVU in 2021 than in 2020. Therefore specialties with no E/M billing (such as pathology and radiology) will see a significant drop in income and surgical specialties that have most of their RVUs from surgical procedures and have a lower percentage of their RVUs from E/M billing will also see a drop in income.
Every year, different physician specialty societies lobby for increasing their own specialties’ compensation. In that sense, doctors as a profession are a group of competing special interests.
For physicians in solo or small group private practice, a decrease in total RVUs has the biggest impact on physician income since those physicians still have the same overhead expenses in 2021 as they had in 2020. If that overhead expense is half of total revenue, then a 10% drop in total revenue can translate to a 20% drop in physician income. Therefore, radiologists and pathologists in solo or small group private practices will see the biggest drop in take-home income. I anticipate that in this group, there will be increasing pressure to become hospital-employed next year as a consequence of the significant drop in private practice income.
For physicians who are hospital-employed, a decrease in the work RVU has the biggest impact on physician income since those physicians typically have the work RVU as the measure of productivity by which the hospital bases their income. Therefore, critical care physicians, anesthesiologists, and radiologists who are hospital-employed will see the greatest drop in their income.
The annual changes in physician reimbursement has a big financial impact on current physicians but also has a quieter impact on future physicians. As medical students see changes in compensation among specialties, the invisible hand of capitalism will affect the decision about which specialties those students choose to enter. One way of assessing medical student interest in different specialties in in the National Residency Match Program data. In the 2020 residency and fellowship match, the specialties with the lowest fill rates were nephrology (62%,), geriatrics (50%), and infectious disease (79%). Specialties with the highest fill rates were radiology (98%), dermatology (98%), otolaryngology (99%), plastic surgery (100%), and thoracic surgery (100%). In the future, we can expect students to be drawn to those specialties that have an increasing reimbursement and away from those with lower reimbursement.
American medicine is not a free market economy. Each year, Medicare can have a big impact on the compensation among different specialties as well as the interest in students entering those specialties, simply by changing the RVU valuations and the conversion factor. In 2021, we will see some of the biggest changes in recent years.
People of Asian descent comprise 5.6% of the American population but Asian Americans comprise 19.8% of all U.S. physicians. Two things happened this week that led me to think about this statistic and why Asian Americans are so disproportionately represented in American medicine. First, I listened to the America’s Test Kitchen podcast, Proof, about why there are so many Chinese restaurants in the U.S. (quite fascinating and worth a listen). Second, I listened to this week’s MedNet webcast on Racism and Racial Bias in Medicine that included an exploration of why African Americans are under-represented in U.S. medicine. Part of my interest is because of my own Chinese heritage (albeit only 1/8th).
Several years ago, there was a lawsuit against Harvard University by a group of Asian students who were denied college admission and claimed that the University discriminated against Asian applicants who had superior admission test scores and grades than applicants of other races. The allegation was that Harvard made it harder for Asian applicants in order to keep the percentage of Harvard students who were Asian from becoming too high. The press surmised that Asian American students have a culturally-driven higher study ethic than students of other races. But I think that the reason for the high percentage of Asian students at elite U.S. universities and the high percentage of U.S. physicians who are Asian American has a deeper and darker cause that has its roots in immigration laws that paradoxically were created to keep Asians out of America. As the law of unintended consequences dictates, those laws ultimately resulted in Asian Americans being more academically successful and more overly-represented in American professions such as medicine.
The Naturalization Act of 1790
One of the first laws of the new U.S. government was the Naturalization Act of 1790 that limited naturalization to “free white person[s] … of good character“, thus excluding Asians (as well as anyone else who was not from Europe). This law essentially banned Chinese from immigrating to the United States but this was in many ways a moot point since travel by ship to the Eastern seaboard of the country from China via the Atlantic Ocean was very difficult and expensive. Not until the country’s westward expansion opened California to development did travel from China to the U.S. via the Pacific Ocean become feasible.
The next major event that affected immigration and naturalization of Asians occurred in 1868. That year, the first section of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The implication was that even if a non-white immigrant to the U.S. could not obtain citizenship himself or herself, their children could become citizens if born in U.S.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
The California gold rush attracted many Chinese to the west coast of the U.S. where they worked in mines and then when the mines played out, they worked in railroad construction. But soon, these laborers were competing with American citizens for labor jobs and often accepting much lower wages thus making it harder for white Americans to find work. This created a lot of hostility by many Americans toward Chinese immigrants. Notably, 140 years later, that same hostility would be directed against Latin American immigrants who are perceived as “stealing” jobs from other Americans.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted to appease this hostility. The act barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and also made Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship. The only exceptions were for Chinese merchants and teachers. At the time, Chinese were subject to racial discrimination equal in many situations to Blacks. In fact, in in 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in his dissent: “…the Chinese race is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States.”.
Because the Chinese Exclusion Act limited immigration to merchants and teachers, the act essentially barred Chinese women from immigration since at the time, the vast majority of merchants and teachers were men. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, Chinese men in the U.S. outnumbered Chinese women 27 to 1. Many of these Chinese store owners and teachers married white women since there were so few Chinese women in the country. One of those men was my great-grandfather, who came to the United States from China in 1873, opened a Chinese laundry, married a white woman (my great-grandmother), and ultimately became the president of the Chinese Merchant’s Association of America (but that is another story).
The unintended consequence of the Chinese Exclusion Act was that it selected out only educated Chinese men from immigrating to the U.S. And when these men married and had families, they instilled the importance of education into their children. The unwritten message was that if you were Chinese in America, you had to have an education to economically survive. Racism against Chinese created a more educated and middle class Chinese population in the U.S. In contrast, racism against Blacks in the U.S. resulted in Africans being brought to America as slaves and education of their children was suppressed in order to maintain a population of unskilled enslaved laborers.
Many of these Chinese merchants opened restaurants. Chinese restaurants proliferated because their owners had to sell better food at a lower cost than other American restaurants since they had no other employment options than to be a merchant, even if it meant making a lower income by selling inexpensive food.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
After World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, in part because China had been a U.S. ally during the war. However, immigration from China was limited to only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated national origin, race, and ancestry as basis for immigration. Importantly, it created a “special immigrant” category that was not subject to quotas – included in this category were foreign medical graduates. The implication was that if you wanted to immigrate to the United States, you had to go to medical school first.
Currently, 25% of U.S. physicians are foreign medical graduates. The more medical schools a given country has, the more physician immigrants that country can send to the U.S. There are 348 medical schools in India offering an MBBS degree. There are 154 medical schools in China that offer an MBBS degree and 50 of these teach in English. In contrast, there are only 160 medical schools in the total of the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa; consequently, India and China are capable of producing more medical graduates that can then immigrate to the United States than other countries can.
One of the best predictors of whether or not a person will become a doctor is whether their mother or father was a physician. In the United States, 20% of doctors have a parent who was also a doctor. I’m a perfect example, a third-generation doctor, with my physician-father a descendent of one of the Chinese immigrants affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Medicine is the family business.
The counter productivity of Chinese racism
For a century after the inception of the United States of America, Chinese were usually disdained and immigration from China prohibited. For the second century of our country, some Chinese were tolerated, but only those who were well-educated and entrepreneurial. As a result of policies and laws to keep Asians out of the U.S., we now have a disproportionately high percentage of Chinese and other Asians occupying the ranks of physicians. And given the propensity for children of doctors to become doctors, the percentage of doctors who are Asian American will likely grow in future decades.
Racism is always morally wrong. And racism is always bad policy. There can be unanticipated consequences of racism that result in exactly the opposite of what racism intended… your doctor is likely going to be someone like me, a son of a son of a daughter of a Chinese immigrant.
Every year, CMS publishes the National Health Expenditure (NHE) data; the most recent information was updated in December 2019 and reports data from 2018. The NHE gives important insight into how Americans spend their money on healthcare. For example, in 2018, health expenditures increased by 4.6% to an average of $11,172 per American. This represents a startling 17.7% of our gross domestic product. The growth in spending was not uniform, however – Medicare spending increased faster than any other source:
Medicare spending grew by 6.4%
Private health insurance spending grew by 5.8%
Medicaid spending grew by 3.0%
Out of pocket spending grew by 2.8%
To put that in context, in 2018, the U.S. annual inflation rate was 1.9%. The average household income rose 0.8% during this period. In other words, the average American’s health costs increased 6 times more than their annual income increased in 2018.
The report shows that although Medicare spending increased the fastest, total expenditures are still the greatest for private health insurance. Overall, the total national health expenditures were $3,649,400,000,000 (i.e., $3.6 trillion). Of that:
Private health insurance = $1,243 billion (34%)
Medicare = $750 billion (21%)
Medicaid = $597 billion (16%)
Out of pocket = $376 billion (10%)
Other Federal (CHIPs, Veteran’s Administration, Department of Defense) = $138 billion (4%)
Other governmental (Indian Health Service, worker’s compensation, etc.) = $370 billion (10%)
Investment = $174 billion (5%)
The NHE report also projects expenditures over the next 7 years at an annual increase of 5.5% per year. This will reach an estimated $6.0 trillion by 2027. As a percent of gross domestic product, health expenditures will rise to 19.4% by 2027. Currently, about 10% of the American population is uninsured and this is projected to remain the same through 2027 (although this percentage is subject to change based on changes in Federal healthcare legislation).
State-specific per capita health expenditures are available through 2014 (data will be updated with the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census). Six years ago, in 2014, the average personal health expense per person was $8,045. There was considerable variation by individual states with Alaska being most expensive ($11,060 per person) and Utah being the least expensive ($5,981 per person). However, states could be grouped into regions with the states within those regions having fairly similar costs. New England states were the most expensive and Rocky Mountain states wee the least expensive. The data can also be analyzed by healthcare costs as a percent of each state’s gross domestic product – Maine ranked the highest at 22.3% of GDP and Wyoming ranked the lowest at 9.3% of GDP in 2014.
Not surprisingly, as people age, their health costs go up. In 2014, the average personal health care spending per American child was $3,749, per working-age American was $7,153, and per American over age 65 years was $19,098. Even though the elderly only accounted for 15% of the U.S. population in 2014, they accounted for 34% of total health spending. For all age groups, per person spending for females was higher than for males with an overall average of $8,811 per female versus $7,272 per male.
The U.S. has an almost insatiable appetite for health care. However the NHE projections through 2027 show that there is a limit to what we can afford. It may be time for our country to put our health care appetite on a diet.
Insurance denials and insurance prior authorizations are the bane of existence for any physician who practices in an outpatient setting. The are at best an annoyance but last Friday, I had an experience that nearly made my head explode. At issue was the denial of a high resolution chest CT that I had ordered several months ago for a patient with interstitial lung disease who had deteriorating pulmonary function tests despite treatment. I wanted to determine if his interstitial lung disease was worsening to decide if his treatment needed to be changed or if he needed to be referred for a lung transplant. I entered the order into our electronic medical record with ICD-10 code J84.9 (interstitial lung disease) and typed into the “reason for the test” box that he had interstitial lung disease of uncertain cause with worsening pulmonary function tests. The patient’s insurance company contracts with a radiology test benefits management company (which I am going to call “Roadblock, Inc” so that the real company does not blacklist me) to review orders for radiology tests and then approve or deny the tests based on whether or not the tests meet evidence-based indications for that particular test. Last week, shortly before the CT was scheduled to be performed, I got an email from our office staff that the insurance company had called to tell us that Roadblock, Inc had denied the CT and then left a case reference number and the phone number at Roadblock, Inc for me to call. Here is a summary of my subsequent phone call to Roadblock, Inc:
2:00 PM – I call Roadblock, Inc and am on hold for 2 minutes
2:02 PM – A Roadblock, Inc customer service representative answers the call and takes down all of the information about the patient and the test that was ordered
2:04 PM – She transfers me to the clinical review department. I am again placed on hold for 1 minute
2:05 PM – A second customer service representative answers and again asks for the case number, patient’s name and birth date as well as my name and contact information. She informs me that the reason for denial is that the only approved indication for a high resolution chest CT is interstitial lung disease or worsening pulmonary function tests. She asks me if I would like to be transferred to the physician appeals department. I answer yes and am placed on hold for 2 minutes
2:08 PM – a third customer service representative answers and I am again asked for the case number, patient name, and date of birth as well as my name and contact information. She asks me if the previous customer service representative told me why the CT was denied and I answered yes.
2:10 PM – I explained that the original order had the correct ICD-10 code for interstitial lung disease and additionally had the typed clinical information that the patient had interstitial lung disease with worsening pulmonary function tests. I pulled up the original date-and-time-stamped order from a few months earlier to confirm this and offered to fax it to her. The customer service representative stated that when the order was processed by Roadblock, Inc, that the indication for the test was not completed. I explained that the information that we sent to Roadblock, Inc included the correct ICD-10 code and the correct written indication for the test.
2:13 PM – I then ask to schedule a “peer-to-peer” phone call with one of their physician reviewers. The customer service representative tells me that a peer-to-peer is not permitted for a test denial. The customer service representative acknowledged that the information that I had entered into the order and sent to Roadblock, Inc was the correct indication for a high resolution chest CT but that on the Evicor computer system, that information had not been documented and therefore the test had been denied.
2:16 PM – I asked for an appeal since the error was on the part of the Roadblock, Inc’s employee who had recorded the information that our office had sent to them. The customer service representative tells me that she is sorry but that appeals are not permitted.
2:18 PM – I tell her that I would send in a new order for the CT scan. She tells me that I am not permitted to re-order a CT when the original order is denied. She tells me that Roadblock, Inc’s policy is that I cannot order a new CT scan for a 2 month period after a denial.
2:20 PM – I ask to speak with her supervisor. She tells me that I can call the insurance company to see if they will make an exception to the denial.
2:21 PM – My head explodes and I tell the customer service representative that her company has failed this patient.
This is not a unique experience. Prior authorizations and denial appeals take up an enormous amount of physician and office staff time. A recent survey of 1,000 physicians by the American Medical Association found that 91% reported that the prior authorization process had a negative impact on patient care; 28% reported that prior authorization had resulted in delays of care that resulted in hospitalization, death, or disability; 86% reported that the prior authorization process placed a high or extremely high burden on their practice; and 88% reported that the prior authorization process has gotten worse in the past 5 years.
The Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare found that prior authorizations increased 27% between 2016 and 2019. Currently, the average physician has to do 34 prior authorizations per week and the total time cost to the physician and office staff is 14.9 hours per week devoted just to prior authorizations.
About 25 years ago, our pulmonary practice group held an all-day coding and billing session for all of the physicians. We hired a coding specialist from one of the major health insurance companies to come to teach us how to best document and code for the services we were billing with the thought that the best person to teach us about correct documentation and coding was a person from an insurance company coding department. She told us that the staff in her department were told to deny every 10th claim. If the physician appealed the denial, then they would simply approve the claim and move on. But the insurance company had found that most physicians do not bother to appeal claim denials and just write them off. By randomly denying claims, the insurance company was able to save an enormous amount of money.
Medication denials are a particular problem. Many drugs are members of a class of medications that are all relatively interchangeable for most patients. For example, statins used for high cholesterol, ACE inhibitors used for high blood pressure, and inhalers used for asthma. The insurance company will negotiate with the drug manufacturers to get the lowest price for one of the drugs in a class of medications. These drugs are then placed on the insurance company’s “formulary” of approved medications; if a patient is prescribed a drug that is not on the approved formulary, then the patient has to pay retail price for that drug out of pocket. I deal with dozens of different insurance formularies. Some insurance companies permit a computer interface with physicians’ electronic medical record so that physicians can tell right away if a medication that they are prescribing is on that insurance company’s formulary and then pick another drug from that same class if it isn’t. But many insurance companies do not permit an interface with the physician EMR. Although the physician can go to the internet and look up a formulary, most of these on-line formularies are not very user friendly and often require the physician to scroll through pages and pages of a PDF file to hunt for a drug that would be covered – this can take the physician 5-10 minutes to determine which drug is or is not covered. If a non-formulary drug is prescribed, the physician will usually get a letter in the mail that the prescribed drug is not on the insurance company’s formulary. The problem is that those letters do not tell the physician what drug in the same class is covered so the physician either has to spend time on the internet trying to determine what is covered or continue to randomly prescribe medications in that drug category until they hit on one that is covered. Furthermore, the insurance companies change their drug formularies every January and a drug that is covered one year will often not be covered the next year resulting in a flurry of denial letters being sent to physician offices all over the country every January.
Prior authorizations and denials are a great business model for insurance companies, radiology benefit management companies, and pharmacy benefit management companies. By creating a barrier to approving expensive tests such as CT scans and MRIs, they can reduce the number of these expensive tests that are actually done. By denying medications that are not on their insurance formulary, they can reduce the number of prescriptions that are filled.
The sad part of prior authorizations and denials is that most of the time, the physician can eventually successfully appeal the denial of a test or a prescribed medication, as long as the physician is persistent and dedicates the time necessary for the appeal. The net result is that these denials and prior authorizations create an enormous cost to physician practices with no real benefit to the patient. As a consequence, the American prior insurance authorization and denial system is a major contributor to the U.S. having the most expensive healthcare in the world but still lagging other countries in quality of healthcare.
A 2018 report from Harvard concluded “Physician burnout is a public health crisis that urgently demands action by health care institutions, governing bodies, and regulatory authorities. If left unaddressed, the worsening crisis threatens to undermine the very provision of care, as well as eroding the mental health of physicians across the country.” Some of the primary drivers of burnout is burdensome administrative requirements, excessive bureaucratic requirements, and consequences of electronic medical records. Insurance denials and prior authorizations fit squarely into these drivers of burnout.
Ironically, the payers that generally pose the least denials and prior authorizations are Medicare and Medicaid. I am generally a strong proponent of free market economic systems but in this case, the American health insurance free market has resulted in a broken system that is increasing healthcare costs to Americans and contributing to physician burnout.
Recently, one of our primary care physicians was telling me about one of his patients, an 85 year-old woman who had a knee replacement at a different hospital here in Columbus. She was in the hospital for 4 days after her surgery but was very slow to recover and was determined to be unsafe for discharge home without additional rehabilitation so she was discharged to a SNF (subacute nursing facility). She spent a week getting rehab at the SNF and then returned home only to find that she had a bill for the entire stay the nursing facility; Medicare covered none of it. She paid her bills but in doing so, wiped out most of her savings.
She was a victim of the Medicare 3-day rule.
The 3-day rule is Medicare’s requirement that a patient has to be admitted to the hospital for at least 3 days in order for Medicare to cover the cost of a SNF after the hospitalization. If the patient is admitted for less than 3 days, then the patient pays the cost of the SNF and Medicare pays nothing. So, if this patient was in the hospital for 4 days, why didn’t Medicare cover the cost of the SNF?
It all has to do with when the inpatient stay clock starts and that has nothing to do with when the patient first comes into the hospital for a surgery or a medical condition. It solely depends on when the attending physician entered an order for that patient to be in “inpatient status” as opposed to “observation status”. Medicare considers a patient to be in inpatient status if that patient is anticipated to need to be in the hospital for 2 midnights and in observation status if the patient is anticipated to be in the hospital for less than 2 midnights. Observation status was originally intended to be used to observe the patient to determine whether the patient is sick enough to warrant being admitted to the hospital.
But observation status has evolved into a monster that no longer resembles its original intended form. It no longer matters whether or not the patient needs to be in the hospital, it is now interpreted as the duration of that hospitalization – less than 2 midnights and you are an outpatient and more than 2 midnights you are an inpatient, no matter how sick you really are.
The problem that physicians face is that it is often difficult to predict how long a patient will need to be in the hospital when they first show up in the emergency department for their acute medical illness or in the operating room for their elective surgery. That is why observation status was invented in the first place. However, when it comes to covering the cost of a SNF, since Medicare only counts those hospital days after the physician decides that the patient really does need to be an inpatient. Many patients end up having to pay the cost of the SNF if they spend fewer than 3 midnights after that inpatient order was written, even if they additionally spent several days in the hospital under observation status. Medicare will not count those observation days towards the 3 inpatient days necessary to qualify for a SNF.
Part of the confusion is that even though Medicare won’t count those initial observation status days toward the SNF days, Medicare will pay for the observation status days just like they were inpatient days when it comes to the initial hospitalization. That is because for the purposes of hospital payment, Medicare will pay for up to 3 days in the hospital prior to when an inpatient admission order was placed. In other words, Medicare uses a different 3-day rule in defining inpatient hospital coverage as opposed to defining inpatient qualifying days for SNF coverage.
If a patient is in inpatient status, then Medicare part A covers the entire hospitalization plus all of the medications administered during the hospitalization. However, if a patient is in observation status, then the hospital stay is not covered by Medicare part A but instead is covered by Medicare part B which requires the patient to pay a 20% co-pay for all of the charges plus pay for any medications administered during the hospitalization. Lets take some examples to see how this works for a patient admitted through the emergency department with pneumonia:
A patient comes to the emergency department with pneumonia and the physician writes an order for inpatient status when first coming into the hospital. The patient stays in the hospital for 5 days (all 5 in inpatient status) and gets discharged to a SNF.
Medicare part A pays for the entire hospital stay plus any related outpatient charges for the 3 days prior to the inpatient order being written (i.e., the ER visit)
The patient has no hospital co-pay
Medicare part A pays for the SNF
A patient comes to the emergency department with fever and cough but the physician is not sure if it is pneumonia at first so the physician writes an order for the patient to be in observation status when first coming into the hospital. Two days later, the physician determines that it really is pneumonia and changes the order from observation status to inpatient status. The patient stays in the hospital for 5 days in total (3 days in inpatient status) and gets discharged to a SNF.
Medicare part A pays for the entire hospital stay plus the ER visit and the 2 days in observation status.
The patient has no co-pay for the hospitalization
Medicare part A pays for the SNF
A patient comes to the emergency department with fever and cough but the physician is not sure if it is pneumonia at first so the physician writes an order for the patient to be in observation status when first coming into the hospital. The physician later determines that the patient has pneumonia but does not change the order from observation status to inpatient status until 4 days later. The patient stays in the hospital for 5 days in total (1 day in inpatient status) and gets discharged to a SNF.
Medicare part A pays for the last 3 of the 4 days the patient was in observation status plus the day that the patient was in inpatient status.
Medicare part B pays pays 80% of the first of the 4 days the patient was in observation status and 80% of the ER visit.
The patient pays for 20% of all of the hospital charges for the first observation status day and 20% of the ER visit
The patient pays for all of the medication charges for the ER visit and the first hospital observation status day
The patient pays for the SNF (Medicare will not cover the SNF since there were fewer than 3 inpatient days)
A patient comes to the emergency department with fever and cough but the physician is not sure if it is pneumonia at first so the physician writes an order for the patient to be in observation status when first coming into the hospital. The physician later determines that the patient has pneumonia but forgets to change the observation status order to an inpatient status order. The patient stays in the hospital for 5 days in total (all in observation status).
Medicare part B pays for 80% of the entire hospital stay plus the ER visit.
The patient pays 20% of the entire hospital charges plus 20% of the ER visit charge
The patient pays for all medications received in the ER and during the hospitalization.
The patient pays for the SNF (Medicare will not cover the SNF since there were fewer than 3 inpatient days)
Next, let’s see how Medicare applies the 3-day rule for an elective knee replacement surgery:
A patient comes into the hospital for knee replacement. The patient has no significant co-morbid medical conditions. The surgeon writes an order for the patient to be in observation status at the time of the surgery. The patient spends 1 night in the hospital and is discharged home the next day.
Medicare part A pays for nothing
Medicare part B pays for 80% of the surgery and hospital charges
The patient pays 20% of the surgery and hospital charges
The patent pays for all medications received in the hospital
A patient comes into the hospital for knee replacement. The patient has difficult-to-control diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, and kidney failure so the surgeon anticipates that the patient will need to stay in the hospital for more than 2 midnights after the surgery to care for the medical conditions. The surgeon writes an order for the patient to be in inpatient status at the time of the surgery. The patient spends 4 nights in the hospital and is discharged home.
Medicare part A pays for the entire surgery and hospital stay
The patient pays nothing
A patient comes into the hospital for knee replacement. The patient has difficult-to-control diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, and kidney failure so the surgeon anticipates that the patient will need to stay in the hospital for more than 2 midnights after the surgery to attend to the medical conditions. The surgeon writes an order for the patient to be in inpatient status at the time of the surgery. The patient spends 4 nights in the hospital but still need more rehabilitation so the patient is discharged to a SNF.
Medicare part A covers the entire surgery and hospital stay
The patient pays nothing
Medicare pays for the SNF
A patient comes into the hospital for knee replacement. The patient has difficult-to-control diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, and kidney failure but the surgeon thinks that the patient will only require one night in the hospital post-operatively. The surgeon writes an order for the patient to be in observation status at the time of the surgery. After 2 days, the surgeon changes the order to inpatient status. The patient spends 4 nights in the hospital and is discharged home.
Medicare part A pays for the entire surgery and hospital stay
The patient pays nothing
A patient comes into the hospital for knee replacement. The patient has difficult-to-control diabetes, heart failure, sleep apnea, and kidney failure but the surgeon thinks that the patient will only require one night in the hospital post-operatively. The surgeon writes an order for the patient to be in observation status at the time of the surgery. After 2 days, the surgeon changes the order to inpatient status. The patient spends 4 nights in the hospital but still need more rehabilitation so the patient is discharged to a SNF.
Medicare part A pays for the entire surgery and hospital stay
The patient pays nothing for the surgery and hospital stay
The patient pays for the SNF (Medicare will not pay for the SNF)
Confused? You are not alone. It is because Medicare actually has two 3-day rules and they work totally differently. When an observation status order is changed to an inpatient status order, Medicare will consider the 3 days prior to the inpatient order being written as being inpatient for the purposes of covering hospital charges. However, for SNF coverage decisions, Medicare will not count the 3 days prior to the inpatient order toward the 3 inpatient days that Medicare requires in order for Medicare to pay for SNF charges.
Medicare’s coverage rules are byzantine and indecipherable for the average patient. Even physicians often do not fully understand the nuances of the two 3-day rules. But if you want to make a patient unhappy with their hospital stay and with their surgeon, there is no better way than to slap that patient with an unexpected $20,000 co-pay and SNF charge after their elective knee surgery. It is incumbent on all physicians to get the inpatient status order correct as early in the hospitalization as possible to ensure that Medicare appropriately covers inpatient charges and SNF charges. If there is any chance that the patient will need to go to a SNF after hospitalization for a medical illness or a surgery, then the initial order should always be for inpatient status and not observation status.
It costs more than $1.1 million to train a doctor in the United States. The societal investment in creating physicians is enormous and has widespread implications for American health care in everything from acceptance of international medical graduates to the future use of non-physician health care providers.
Breaking down the costs
Depending on the specialty, tt takes 11 to 15 years to train a physician when you count college, medical school, residency, and fellowship. At each of these steps there are direct costs and indirect costs. Some of these costs are paid by the physician in training and some of these costs are paid for by society in general (usually through state or federal taxes). Here is a breakdown of the direct and indirect costs at each step along the way:
Undergraduate education. Colleges essentially have 3 sources of income: tuition, endowment, and government funds. For this reason, the total cost to educate an undergraduate is considerably more than what the student actually pays in tuition. It becomes complicated because most colleges not only have to finance the education of students but also have to finance the research activities that professors must perform in order to keep their jobs. Thus, it is hard to separate the costs of education from the costs of research. Public colleges receive state government funds to subsidize their education and research activities and this results in lower tuition for in-state residents than for out-of-state residents. The out-of-state tuition and fees best reflects the cost to teach an undergraduate without the state governmental subsidy. Private colleges and universities generally do not receive state governmental subsidies and have considerably higher tuition costs. For the purpose of this analysis, I used the current cost of attendance for out-of-state freshman at the Ohio State University that includes tuition, fees, books, room, board, and miscellaneous expenses if living on-campus which is $49,556. For four years of college, this would be a total cost of $198,224.
Medical school. Colleges of medicine have the same 3 sources of income as undergraduate colleges so for this analysis, I used the current cost of attendance for an out-of-state medical student at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. Once again, this estimate is for tuition and fees as well as estimated living expenses. Unlike undergraduate college, the cost of medical school varies considerably for each of the four years of training: year one = $80,019, year two = $76,026, year three = $114,442, and year four = $114,542. Totaling all four years, the cost to go to medical school is $385,029.
Residency. There are both direct and indirect costs of resident education. The direct costs are the resident’s salary and benefits. At the Ohio State University Medical Center, these costs are $51,510 for a first year resident (intern) and increases each year so that a fourth year resident cost is $56,636. However, the direct costs are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total cost to train a resident. There is the cost of everything from hospital call rooms, to residency program administrator salaries, to part of the salaries of chairmen and faculty to cover otherwise non-compensated teaching time. Most of these indirect costs are ultimately paid from federal tax dollars- either by Medicare payments to teaching hospitals for graduate medical education or by the higher Medicare payments for clinical services that teaching hospitals get paid (as opposed to non-teaching hospitals). In 2014, the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine estimated that the total direct and indirect costs to train a resident is $183,416 per year. For the 3 years of residency it takes to become a general internist, pediatrician, family physician, or hospitalist, the cost is $550,248. It takes longer to train other specialists, for example, an obstetrician is 4 years ($733,664), a gastroenterologist is 6 years ($1,100,496), and an interventional cardiologist is 7 years ($1,283,912).
Total costs. Adding all of these together, the total costs to train physicians is astounding. This demonstrates that society has an enormous investment in each physician in the United States.
$1,133,501 – general internist, family physician, pediatrician
$1,316,917 – obstetrician, psychiatrist
$1,500,333 – general surgeon, endocrinologist
$1,683,749 – gastroenterologist, pulmonary/critical care, general cardiologist
International medical graduates. One of the best ways to reduce the cost of training doctors is to get someone else to pay for it. If you can get another country to cover the costs of college and medical school, then the cost to American society drops. Therefore, the U.S. cost to train a family physician who is an international medical graduate is $583,253 less than a family physician who is a U.S. medical graduate. In other words, the cost to American society of an international medical graduate is about half that of a U.S. medical graduate.
Non-physician providers. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are far less expensive to train than physicians. The typical NP or PA training consists of 4 years of undergraduate training plus 2 years of NP/PA training. The costs to become an NP or PA is approximately $84,598 after college (tuition and living expenses) and the total cost including college is $282,822. In other words, the cost to train a family practice NP/PA is only one-fourth of the cost of training a family practice physician. Given that NPs and PAs increasingly have a similar scope of practice as physicians, from a societal standpoint, it will be a lot less expensive to train an NP or PA than it is to train a physician to do the same job. The implication is that NPs and PAs will replace many physician jobs in the future.
Repairing broken physicians. In a meeting I was recently attending, a question was asked whether we have different standards for terminating physicians with behavioral problems or substance abuse than we do for terminating other health care workers for the same problems. The reality is that I think we probably do and part of this is because of the enormous societal investment in those physicians. To create an analogy, if you have a broken handle on a screw driver that cost $2, you buy a new screw driver and don’t pay the cost of repairing it. On the other hand, if you have a broken handle on an airplane that costs $1.2 million, you repair the handle rather than throwing out the entire plane. If society invests $1.2 million to create a physician who then develops alcoholism, one can make the argument that hospitals have a societal obligation to first attempt to cure the physician and return him or her to practice when/if safe to do so rather than permanently end that physician’s career. Like it or not, hospitals will often put broken physicians on leave and attempt to rehabilitate them for infractions that would result in an unskilled employee being terminated – it is not necessarily fair but it is an economic reality. On the other hand, if an airplane has a critical mechanical flaw that puts it in continuous danger of crashing, you decommission that airplane – physicians with critical flaws should similarly be decommissioned.
Discussions about the cost of training physicians usually center around the cost to the individual physician and often stop at the average debt of a graduating medical student. But beyond medical student debt, there is a much larger cost that is not paid directly by the doctor but is paid more broadly by the institutions that provide scholarships, by the citizens who pay state and federal taxes, by direct salary costs of residents who cannot bill for their services, and by the indirect costs to hospitals to train residents.
I was asked to give a talk to the new internal medicine interns this week and it gave me a chance to think about what it is that we are training them for. Wayne Gretzky famously said “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” If we are going to be effective teachers of medicine, we need to train our interns and residents for the way medicine will be, not how it was in the past or even how it is now. So, what will medicine look like 16 years from now in 2035? The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has created a vision for medicine in 2035 to help residency programs prepare tomorrow’s practicing physicians. I agree with a lot of what the document concludes and I’ve added some of my own projections about what medicine will be like in 2035:
It is going to be more complex. As we learn more about the causes of disease and as we develop more specifically targeted treatments for disease, the complexity of medicine will increase exponentially. Take the example of oncology: 20 years ago, a physician would specialize in hematology & oncology and that was pretty much the end of the story. As knowledge and treatments increased, the discipline split so that physicians either became a hematologist or an oncologist. Now, oncology has split further so that a physician becomes a breast cancer oncologist, or a lung cancer oncologist, or a gastrointestinal cancer oncologist. In the past, lung cancer was either small cell or non-small cell lung cancer; now non-small cell lung cancer is subdivided into many different varieties based on specific driver mutations and each of these varieties are treated differently. As we further subdivide diseases into different groups based on biochemical or genetic differences, we get newer and more complicated drugs to treat them with. Last year, the FDA approved 59 new drugs; at that pace, there will be nearly 1,000 new drugs on the market in 2035 that do not exist today.
Medical information will become more transparent. In the past, medical information was locked away in a paper chart stored on a shelf in a hospital medical records department storeroom. Now, the finest details of patients’ medical history, lab test results, and x-rays are available to just about any physician in the country who is involved in the care of that patient. In minutes, I can have radiographic images appear on my computer screen from a chest CT scan a patient had in California earlier that morning. Patients can view all of their test results and even their doctor’s progress notes real-time. Information transparency shows no sign of letting up and more people will be able to access more health information than ever before. Not only will patient medical information become more transparent, but the way we take care of patients will become more transparent. Already, you can see what any given hospital’s readmission rate, emergency department waiting time in minutes, and surgical complication rate is with a quick trip the the Medicare website.
Commoditization of medicine will increase. Health care in the United States is a business. Already, hospitals are buying and selling physician practices, healthcare systems are acquiring hospitals, and health insurance companies are merging with drug store chains. Hospitals are now federally mandated to publicly post the prices for all of their services. There is pressure to reduce costs by using the least expensive employees to provide care. Non-traditional healthcare locations are being used where profit can be made. You don’t need to look any further than your local pharmacy where medications are dispensed based on a patient’s insurance formulary, the pharmacists will administer vaccinations directly to patients, and a nurse practitioner will manage common acute illnesses in a “minute clinic” – all of which were decisions previously made by and services previously provided by physicians. Americans are entrepreneurial to the core and the business of medicine will increasingly mimic the business of other commodities.
Advanced practice providers will increase. 2013 was the last year that there were more MD degrees awarded in the United States than CNP degrees. The certified nurse practitioner workforce is increasing exponentially. 20 years ago, nurse practitioners worked for physicians as so-called “physician extenders” and did not prescribe medications. Now, NPs work independently and have prescriptive authority. It makes sense – it takes 2 years of education after a bachelor’s degree to become an NP but it takes 7 years of education after a bachelor’s degree to become a family physician. In addition, the typical NP salary is less than half that of a family physician. So, if an NP can do the same thing as a primary care physician at half the cost and with 28% of the training, the commoditization of medicine will encourage hospitals and clinics to hire NPs into roles that they would previously have hired physicians. In the U.S. graduation class of 2017, there were 26,000 NP graduates, 19,259 MD graduates, and 8,336 PA graduates. In the near future, it is likely that the annual number of physician assistant graduates will also exceed the number of physician graduates, just like nurse practitioners already do. Medicine will increasingly be a team sport with physician playing a more smaller role in the team than in the past
Artificial intelligence will proliferate.IBM’s Watson is just the first, rudimentary foray into the use of computers in disease diagnosis and management. Already, I have patients who type 4 or 5 of their symptoms into Google and come to the office asking if they could have whatever disease appears on their Google search. And why shouldn’t it be this way? Physicians are forever missing diagnoses, overlooking test results, and choosing the wrong drug. For years, the mantra of hospital quality departments has been to standardize care and no one can standardize better than a computer.
The patients will be older.The U.S. demographic is changing and in 2035, the number of older Americans will exceed the number of young Americans. This will increase the demand for physicians who provide care to the elderly, such as geriatricians and orthopedic surgeons. As the percentage of Americans over age 65 increases, so will the influence of Medicare on American healthcare as Medicare assumes a more dominant role in U.S. health insurance.
Many of today’s skills will become obsolete. As an intern in 1984, I was required to offer to do a rigid sigmoidoscopy to every patient over age 60 who was admitted to the hospital; I did a lot of rigid sigmoidoscopes that year. Bronchoscopy was not readily available so we would do transtracheal aspirates using an angiocath and a syringe if we needed a sputum sample in a patient who couldn’t cough it up. If I did a lumbar puncture in the middle of the night, I was expected to do a diff quick stain, a gram stain, an India ink prep, and an acid fast stain of the spinal fluid in the residents’ lab down the hall from the ICU. And if a patient had unexplained thrombocytopenia, it was the intern’s job to get a bone marrow biopsy tray, do a bone marrow aspirate, and then stain that aspirate before rounding with the attending physician. As interns, we did all of the blood cultures and the EKGs. Today, no intern or resident is required to do any of these things; in fact, we don’t even let our residents do their own specimen stains due to CLIA restrictions. In 2035, new interns will chuckle when they hear about the “bad old days” in 2019 when doctors did all sorts of procedures that were replaced by better ways of doing things.
A lot of today’s knowledge will turn out to be wrong. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of this is in advanced cardiac life support (ACLS). As a critical care physician, I’m required to re-certify in ACLS every 2 years and since I first took it in medical school, I’ve taken the ACLS course 18 times. Each time, the guidelines are a little different and the correct answers to the questions on the test you have to take are different. It turns out that many of the drugs we used didn’t actually work and the best way to “run a code” turns out to be completely different than what we thought it was. In my first year of medical school, one of the professors told us that 50% of everything we were about to learn will turn out to be wrong… and he was right. The only unchangeable thing about medicine is change itself.
Doctors will be paid differently. In 1965, Medicare was invented and this led to standardization of physician fees… doctors thought it was the end of the world. In the 1970’s DRGs (diagnostic related groups) were rolled out to standardize the way that hospitals got paid for a particular diagnosis or surgical procedure… doctors thought it was the end of the world. In the 1990’s RVUs (relative value units) were created to standardize the way doctors got paid for specific services or procedures… doctors thought it was the end of the world. Now, we are basing physician compensation on value metrics… doctors again think it is the end of the world. Our problem is that healthcare is so expensive. In 2017, the healthcare costs for the average American was $10,224, nearly double the cost per person in economically similar countries. As a percent of GDP, we pay more than any other country for healthcare and that gap is increasing every year. Although we can’t predict what physician compensation model will be in place in 2035, it is clear that our past models of healthcare financing are unsustainable.
The solo practitioner will become extinct.Physician employment models have changed unfathomably fast in the past decade. In just 6 years, the percentage of physicians who are hospital-employed increased from 26% to 44% nationwide. However, there are substantial regional differences such that in the Midwestern United States, 55% of physicians are now employed by a hospital. The solo practitioner or even the small physician group cannot negotiate for favorable payment rates from health insurance companies – only very large groups and larger health systems have the clout to negotiate high payments for physician services from insurance companies. Furthermore, as medicine has become more regulated, it it harder and harder to be sure that you are practicing according to the rules: physicians have to have sufficient support staff to be sure that billing is compliant, HIPAA laws are not violated, and the electronic medical record network is regularly updated – it takes a lot more staff than a solo practitioner can afford to hire. The solo practitioner is not a viable business model for the future.
There will be more international medical graduates. American doctors make more money than doctors in any other country. So, naturally, doctors in other countries like to come to America because they can make a better living. It works out well for the U.S. healthcare system as well – medical school in other countries is generally either heavily subsidized or completely paid for by the governments of those countries so in the end, some other country is paying to train doctors who end up practicing in the U.S. Currently, 24.3% of physicians in the U.S. are international medical graduates but there are significant differences by specialty. For example, 38.6% of internists are international medical graduates as are 50.7% of geriatricians. As I pointed out in a previous post, more nephrology fellowship positions were filled by international medical graduates than U.S. medical graduates this year.
Is there anything that won’t change?The good news is, yes, and no one said it better than Francis Peabody who wrote in his 1927 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “... the secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient.” That tenet held true in 1927, still holds true today, and will hold equally true in 2035. No matter how much we come to depend on artificial intelligence to help us diagnose and manage disease, no matter how many more NPs and PAs are trained, and no matter how commoditized medicine becomes, one quality of being a physician that won’t change is in caring for the patient. Humanism is that one unchangeable thing.
When the average person thinks of donating blood, the first words that come to mind are “Red Cross”. However, the American Red Cross only supplies about 40% of transfused blood in the United States. What most people don’t realize is that the U.S. uses a free-market approach to maintain its blood supply with the result that there are dozens of different blood suppliers for our nation’s hospitals and they compete with each other.
Every day, 35,000 units of packed red blood cells, 7,000 units of platelets, and 10,000 units of plasma are transfused in the United States. In order to meet the needs, there has to be a continuous flow of donated blood into the country’s blood banking system because blood has a short self-life: 42 days for red blood cells and 5 days for platelets. However, red blood cells can be frozen for up to 10 years.
Most countries use a single, government-directed supplier for the blood supply but the U.S. utilizes a network of non-profit blood services that are overseen by federal regulations. As of 2016, there were 786 registered blood establishments that collect blood plus 725 hospital and non-hospital blood banks. Blood centers account for 93% of all collected blood and hospital blood banks account for 7% of collected blood.
We do not transfuse as much blood as we used to. Lower transfusion thresholds (from previous thresholds of 8-9 g/dL hemoglobin to current thresholds of 7 g/dL), a trend toward less-invasive surgeries, the increased use of erythropoietin, hospital blood management programs, and improved medical technology have led to a reduced utilization of blood; the number of units transfused has dropped by 25% since 2008. As the demand for blood has fallen, there has been more competition between the various blood suppliers and many suppliers have gone out of business. So, who are all of these blood suppliers?
The American Red Cross. This is the most visible and publicly recognizable blood supplier and accounts for about 40% of the nation’s blood.
America’s Blood Centers. This is a network of more than 50 independent, local blood suppliers that supply about 50% of the nation’s blood. Its member organizations manage more than 600 donation sites in 45 states. Two of the largest members are Vitalant (western United States) and Versiti (midwestern United States).
The Armed Services Blood Program. This supports the military and their beneficiaries.
Blood is a unique commodity in that it is almost entirely donated for free by volunteers. The cost of blood is therefore primarily due to the expense of processing, storage, and distribution. Hospitals will typically contract with a particularly blood supplier based on (1) per-unit cost to the hospital and (2) quality of service from the blood supplier. Because of the declining demand for blood and because the U.S. has experienced a period of hospital consolidation into large hospital systems that can compete aggressively for blood pricing, the financial margin for most blood centers are razor thin and many operate at an annual financial loss.
Because 92-95% of blood is transfused into hospital inpatients, the cost of blood is absorbed into the hospital’s general expenses rather than being passed directly to the consumer (i.e., the patient). This is because hospitals are paid by a DRG price that is fixed based on an inpatient’s diagnosis and the hospital gets paid the same whether 1 unit of blood is transfused or 20 units of blood is transfused. Most blood is sold on a consignment model – the hospital stores blood but only charges the blood centers for the units actually transfused; therefore, the blood centers bear the cost of outdated units. The net result is that the blood suppliers are happy when more blood is transfused and the hospitals are happy when less blood is transfused. The average price paid from hospitals to blood centers in 2013 was $225 per unit.
About 38% of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood but only a fraction of eligible persons actually donate. All blood is subject to testing for communicable diseases including:
Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)
Hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc)
Hepatitis C virus antibody (anti-HCV)
HIV-1 and HIV-2 antibody (anti-HIV-1 and anti-HIV-2)
HTLV-I and HTLV-II antibody (anti-HTLV-I and anti-HTLV-II)
Serologic test for syphilis
Nucleic acid amplification testing (NAT) for HIV-1 ribonucleic acid (RNA), HCV RNA and WNV RNA
Nucleic acid amplification testing (NAT) for HBV deoxyribonucleic acid
Antibody test for Trypanosoma cruzi, the agent of Chagas disease
The most common blood type is O+ followed by A+. People with type O- blood are known as universal donors because anyone can received type O- red blood cells. Persons with type AB+ are known as universal recipients because they can receive blood of any type. Like 9% of Americans, I’m B+ so I can receive blood from people with blood types B+, B-, O+, and O- (in other words, 59% of of the population); I can donate blood to people with blood types B+ and AB+ (in other words, 13% of the population). There are differences in blood types between countries and between racial/ethnic groups. For example, 11% of South Koreans are AB+ (universal recipients) whereas only 0.5% of Ecuadorians are AB+. On the other hand, only 0.1% of South Koreans are O- (universal donors) whereas 11% of people in the United Kingdom are O-.
On my 16th birthday, the first thing I did the day I got my driver’s license was to drive to the American Red Cross blood donation center to give blood. Except for a few years during residency and fellowship (when I was regularly exposed to HIV secretions and blood in the ICU), I gave blood every 2-4 months for the next 40 years. About 3 years ago, the Red Cross raised the minimum hemoglobin necessary to donate blood and I found myself too anemic to donate. After anemia tests showed iron deficiency and a work-up for GI bleeding was negative, the conclusion was that I donated too frequently and didn’t eat enough meat. So, I started taking iron supplements for a week before and after blood donations, cut back my donation frequency to every 4 months, and learned to love grilled ribeyes again.
The average donor is male, married, college-educated, with an above-average income, white, and between the ages of 30-50. However, 45% of donors are over age 50. So there is a great need to recruit younger people into the donation pool as the current donor pool ages out. In addition, given the ethnic and racial differences in blood types, there is a need to ensure that our nation’s blood donor demographics more closely represents the nation’s ethnic and racial demographics so that tomorrow’s blood supply optimally meets tomorrow’s blood demands. We need to eliminate the current disparities that exist in blood donation.
Our nation’s blood supply is a business but a business that is a unique hybrid of volunteers and commercial enterprises that is like no other business in the world. The dynamics of our blood supply is changing based on changes in healthcare financing and some healthcare experts believe that the blood supply system as we currently know it is in peril. But regardless of the changes in economics, patients will still need blood and volunteer donors will still be the ultimate suppliers of that blood. So what am I going to do about it? I do what I’ve always done. I’ll take iron supplements for the next few days and then donate a pint.
Last week, the National Resident Match Program released its annual data report on the most recent fellowship match for positions to begin in July 2019. The fellowship matches take place between May 2018 and January 2019, with different match days for different specialties. The NRMP releases a summary of all of the specialty match results in February each year. By analyzing the data, you can learn a lot about which specialties are attracting new physicians and which ones are not attracting new physicians. And projecting forward, you can predict which specialties are going to have shortages of practitioners in future years. The 2019 year had the most positions ever offered in the U.S. (10,936), the most fellowship programs ever in existence in the U.S. (4,750), and the most residents who matched into a fellowship program in the U.S. (9,378).
Because the hospital I practice in primarily has internal medicine specialists, I am particularly interested in the outcome of the various internal medicine specialty fellowship matches. This table in blue shows the number of internal medicine fellowship positions by specialty. They vary widely from a low of adult congenital heart disease (9) to a high of cardiology (951). Oncology-only fellowships and hematology-only fellowships generally have very small numbers of available positions because most physicians tend to go into combined hematology and oncology fellowships. Similarly, there are few pulmonary-only fellowships because most candidates go into a combined pulmonary and critical care fellowship.
The NRMP also reports the percentage of available positions that fill with U.S. allopathic (MD degree) medical school graduates, as shown in this table in red. Eliminating oncology, hematology, and pulmonary from the analysis because most doctors interested in those fields do a combined fellowship, it becomes clear that the most popular specialties are hematology & oncology, gastroenterology, and palliative medicine (adult congenital heart disease, interventional pulmonary, and cardiac electrophysiology are only done after a doctor has already completed a pulmonary or cardiology fellowship and are thus sub-specialty fellowships). The least popular fellowships are nephrology, geriatrics, and endocrinology.
Next, lets look at the how all of the various specialties filled when including not only U.S. allopathic graduates but also U.S. osteopathic (DO) graduates, U.S. citizens who attended foreign medical schools (most frequently Caribbean medical schools), Canadian medical school graduates, and foreign medical school graduates. Here, in the table in brown, we see that most fellowships eventually filled. However, nephrology and geriatrics are notable exceptions.
So, why are certain specialties so unpopular? One factor may be salary. Using the 2018 Medscape Physician Compensation Survey data, the internal medicine specialties with the highest salaries also had the highest percentage of available fellowship positions filled with U.S. allopathic medical school graduates (cardiology, gastroenterology, and hematology/oncology). Endocrinology is notable because the annual salary of an endocrinologist is less than a general internist, meaning that for the personal cost of doing 2 additional years of fellowship training in endocrinology compared with a general internist, you get to make $18,000 less than a general internist – not surprisingly, relatively few of the endocrinology fellowship positions were filled by U.S. allopathic medical school graduates.
Another way of analyzing salary and work effort is from the annual MGMA Physician Compensation Report. The 2018 report is the most recent and it reflects 2017 data. There are important differences between the MGMA compensation data and the Medscape compensation data. The MGMA report only includes large group practices, is reported by practice managers, and reflects total compensation. The MGMA report has data on private practice physicians (who make more) separate from academic physicians (who make less). On the other hand, the Medscape report includes any physician, is self-reported by the physician, and represents salary (which may not be the same as total compensation). The Medscape report includes both academic and private practice physicians. The MGMA data is probably more accurate but represents a skewed population of doctors. The Medscape data is probably less accurate but in theory is more representative of the average doctor (or at least those who are willing to take the time to fill out the survey). This table reflects just the MGMA private practice data. From the MGMA report, it is apparent that based on median wRVUs, nephrologists work very hard, in fact, harder than any other specialists except cardiologists. However, they make $140,000 less than cardiologists. When the MGMA data is expressed as total compensation per wRVU, it appears that nephrologists make the second lowest amount of money per wRVU compared to other specialists (note that the MGMA total compensation per wRVU is calculated with a complicated equation and that not all practices report both total compensation plus wRVUs so the reported values will be different than if you simply divide the mean total compensation by the median wRVUs for any given specialty).
There is a pretty sharp demarcation between the lowest paid specialties (geriatrics, endocrinology, rheumatology, infectious disease, and nephrology) and the highest paid specialties. The lowest paid specialties had the lowest percentage of fellowship positions filled with U.S. allopathic medical graduates. The one exception to this is palliative medicine but palliative is unique in that palliative physicians make about twice as much income per wRVU at $110.57 than the other specialties.
Another reason why newly trained residents may choose one specialty over another is how happy the physicians are in a given specialty. The 2018 Medscape Physician Compensation Report also has information on job satisfaction of physicians, including a survey question of “Would I choose the same specialty again?”. Once again, there is a relationship between job satisfaction and the percentage of residents who choose that specialty. The least happy internal medicine specialists are nephrologists (in fact, per the Medscape survey, they are the least happy specialty of all physicians, not just internal medicine specialties). Nephrology is also the specialty that filled the least of available positions with U.S. allopathic medical school graduates. So, if you choose to do 2 additional years of training compared to a general internist, you are rewarded by being 30% less happy with your job than a general internist. On the other hand, the three specialties with the most satisfied physicians are also the 3 specialties with the highest percentage of fellowship positions filled with U.S. allopathic medical school graduates (hematology/oncology, cardiology, and gastroenterology).
As we project the results of this year’s fellowship match into the future, we should anticipate future physician shortages in nephrology, geriatrics, infectious disease, and palliative medicine. Additionally, we should anticipate that there will be more nephrologists who are foreign medical school graduates than U.S. allopathic medical school graduates in the future based on the total number of U.S. versus foreign medical school graduates filling fellowship positions this year. Endocrinology and geriatric medicine are not far behind and in the future, your endocrinologist and geriatrician will probably be more likely to be an immigrant from another country than a graduate of a U.S. medical school.
If American medicine was an entirely free market economy, then as the supply of nephrologists, geriatric physicians, infectious disease physicians, and palliative medicine physicians goes down, then their salaries should go up. But physician supply and demand is complex and since it can take many years to train enough physicians to fill a specialty with a physician shortage, we may be looking at a medical economy with too few nephrologists, geriatric physicians, infectious disease physicians, and palliative medicine physicians for years to come.
An alternative explanation is that we have too many fellowship positions open in these specialties and that academic medicine is out of alignment with the needs of American medicine. Academic medical centers tend to create fellowship positions based on the needs of the individual divisions and departments within a given medical center and not necessarily based on the needs of the medical economy as a whole. This can also contribute to a misalignment of specialist supply and demand.
One thing seems certain, however. American nephrologists are less happy with their job, work harder in terms of wRVUs, and are compensated less per wRVU than other physicians. I believe that these are the reasons why so few physicians are entering the nephrology fellowship match and why so few nephrology fellowship positions filled in this year’s fellowship match. To insure that our patients’ medical needs are met in the future, hospitals will need to be sure that their nephrologists are happy and are compensated appropriately for the work that they do. On the other hand, gastroenterologists, hematology/oncologists, and cardiologists are the happiest and most highly compensated and this may explain why these three specialties filled so well in this year’s match.