Updated April 28, 2014 7:34 p.m. ET
In my 23 years as a practicing physician, I've learned that the only thing that matters is the doctor-patient relationship. How we interact and treat our patients is the practice of medicine. I acknowledge that there is a problem with the rising cost of health care, but there is also a problem when the individual physician in the trenches does not have a voice in the debate and is being told what to do and how to do it.
As a group, the nearly 880,000 licensed physicians in the U.S. are, for the most part, well-intentioned. We strive to do our best even while we sometimes contend with unrealistic expectations. The demands are great, and many of our families pay a huge price for our not being around. We do the things we do because it is right and our patients expect us to.
So when do we say damn the mandates and requirements from bureaucrats who are not in the healing profession? When do we stand up and say we are not going to take it any more?
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services dictates that we must use an electronic health record (EHR) or be penalized with lower reimbursements in the future. There are "meaningful use" criteria whereby the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tells us as physicians what we need to include in the electronic health record or we will not be subsidized the cost of converting to the electronic system and we will be penalized by lower reimbursements. Across the country, doctors waste precious time filling in unnecessary electronic-record fields just to satisfy a regulatory measure. I personally spend two hours a day dictating and documenting electronic health records just so I can be paid and not face a government audit. Is that the best use of time for a highly trained surgical specialist?
This is not a unique complaint. A study commissioned by the American Medical Association last year and conducted by the RAND Corp. found that "Poor EHR usability, time-consuming data entry, interference with face-to-face patient care, inefficient and less fulfilling work content, inability to exchange health information between EHR products, and degradation of clinical documentation were prominent sources of professional dissatisfaction."
In addition to the burden of mandated electronic-record entry, doctors also face board recertification in the various medical specialties that has become time-consuming, expensive, imposing and a convenient method for our specialty societies and boards to make money.
Meanwhile, our Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements have significantly declined, let alone kept up with inflation. In orthopedic surgery, for example, Medicare reimbursement for a total knee replacement decreased by about 68% between 1992 and 2010, based on the value of 1992 dollars. How can this be? Don't doctors have control over what they charge for their services? For the most part, no. Our medical documentation is pored over and insurers and government then determine the appropriate level of reimbursement.
I don't know about other physicians but I am tired—tired of the mandates, tired of outside interference, tired of anything that unnecessarily interferes with the way I practice medicine. No other profession would put up with this kind of scrutiny and coercion from outside forces. The legal profession would not. The labor unions would not. We as physicians continue to plod along and take care of our patients while those on the outside continue to intrude and interfere with the practice of medicine.
We could change the paradigm. We could as a group elect not to take any insurance, not to accept Medicare—many doctors are already taking these steps—and not to roll over time and time again. We have let nearly everyone trespass on the practice of medicine. Are we better for it? Has it improved quality? Do we have more of a voice at the table or less? Are we as physicians happier or more disgruntled then two years ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago?
At 58, I'll likely be retired in 10 years along with most physicians of my generation. Once we're gone, who will speak up for our profession and the individual physician in the trenches? The politicians? Our medical societies? Our hospital administrators? I think not. Now is the time for physicians to say enough is enough.
Dr. Craviotto is an orthopedic surgeon in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.