Anesthesiology is a wonderful profession, as I have described in many previous posts on theanesthesiaconsultant.com. But nothing is perfect, and anesthesia has one threat which could in time undermine the entire specialty. What is this threat? What is anesthesiology’s Achilles’ heel?
No, it’s not the nurse anesthetists, nor the stress of covering surgeries in the middle of the night, nor the stress of saving patients who are trying to die in front of our eyes during acute care emergencies.
Our Achilles’ heel is that we don’t have our own patients.
Primary care doctors have a bevy of patients who return to see them at regular intervals. Specialists and surgeons have a clinic full of patients who are referred to them from primary care physicians. Health care systems are acquiring primary care providers and top specialists as rapidly as they can, to assemble a sizable network of covered lives. This network of patients will serve to keep their clinics and hospitals full and profitable.
In the operating rooms, the patients are brought in by the surgeons. Anesthesia providers, be they physician anesthesiologists or nurse anesthetists, are tasked with providing safe and quality anesthesia care. Anesthesia providers are at best consultants, and at worst, “worker bees” called upon to provide a service.
Which of the following are commodities?
- Crude Oil
- Soy beans
- Anesthesia services
- All of the above
Consider the answer to be E.
To hospital administrators and CEOs, anesthesia “worker bees” can be considered an expense or a commodity, somewhat similar to registered nurses, orderlies, surgical technicians, or even janitors. We can be regarded as a commodity because, like the nurses, technicians, and janitors, patient referrals do not originate with us. To a hospital CEO, each surgeon is an asset who brings surgical patients to surgery, whereas each anesthesia provider may be thought of as a worker necessary to do surgery.
Note that anesthesiologists who specialize in pain medicine in a clinic setting can be exceptions to this discussion. Pain specialists can generate their own patients from their clinics on which to do pain-relieving procedures. In their operating room role they more resemble the niche of a surgeon than that of an anesthetist.
In the current medical economy, when a hospital CEO, a health care system, or a surgery center is looking for anesthesia coverage, a priority is to acquire quality service of these anesthesia “worker bees” at the lowest possible cost. The hospital CEO, health care system, or surgery center may then grant an exclusive contract to the cheapest provider. This exclusive contract may go to a national anesthesia company, rather than the anesthesiologists currently on staff, or this exclusive contract may go to a newly hired anesthesia chairman, empowered to hire a new staff of anesthesiologists or nurse anesthetists at a budget rate.
You may be an outstanding anesthesiologist, but you are replaceable. Your anesthesia group may be an outstanding group, but your whole group is replaceable.
There are problems even if your group has an exclusive contract. Per the California Society of Anesthesiologists’ Dr. Keith Chamberlain, negative aspects of an anesthesia exclusive contract include:
- “You can lose an exclusive contract. Anesthesia job security is based on quality, service, and (more recently) cost. Today, 80 per cent of anesthesia groups receive some subsidy from hospitals, which are strongly motivated to reduce it. Competitors often approach hospitals with business plans that eliminate the subsidy, and the decision for the hospital often comes down to cost. If your hospital privileges are tied to an exclusive contract, your ability to continue to practice will depend on your relationship with the new contract holder.
- The contract holder will eventually experience pressure from the hospital to contract with its payers. There may be a phrase in the contract about “cooperation” with payers. Frequently this means that the contract holder must agree to a contract rate—good or bad.
- If case volume or the number of anesthetizing locations increases, the contract may insist on the availability of additional providers, regardless of OR inefficiency or payer mix.
- Many standard contracts allow either party to terminate without cause on 90 days following the first anniversary.”
An Internet search documents specific examples of anesthesiology groups losing their jobs around the United States:
- From Oregon, in 2010: “Turmoil at Good Samaritan: Up to 23 anesthesiologists will lose their jobs in September when Legacy Good Samaritan ends its contract with the Oregon Anesthesiology Group. The hospital plans to replace the doctors with nurse anesthetists. Unhappy physicians and their supporters have raised concerns about whether the switch puts cost savings ahead of patient safety (nurses make less than docs). Legacy spokesman Brian Terrett says the hospital will gain more control but not benefit financially from the transition because anesthesia costs are billed to patients. He added that the nurse anesthetists will be fully credentialed and supervised by doctors.” Willamette Week: July 7, 2010(https://www.oregon-crna.org/site/content/23-anesthesiologists-will-lose-their-jobs-september)
- From the state of Virginia, in 2015: “A conflict between Riverside Regional Medical Center and its former anesthesia company has escalated to the point that Riverside is unable to perform open-heart surgery until April 23. Riverside did not renew its contract with Virginia Anesthesia and Perioperative Care Specialists and last week brought a new anesthesia company on board…. What happened? Riverside Regional Medical Center ended a long-standing relationship with a local anesthesiology group, Virginia Anesthesia and Perioperative Care Specialists, and contracted with a national management company, Soma Health Partners, effective April 7. Texas-based Soma is bringing in new anesthesiologists because, contractually, the local company’s employees cannot join the new company for two years.”( http://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-local_riverside_0415apr15,0,5448759.story?track=rss)
- From California, in 2011: In her blog, A Penned Point, Dr. Karen Sibert writes “At Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia, hospital administrators put out the anesthesia contract for competitive bidding in 2011, and the all-MD anesthesia group that had held the contract for years lost out to Somnia. A new anesthesiology chief came on board, and a care team model with nurse anesthetists took over.” (http://apennedpoint.com)
What can anesthesiologists do to respond to this Achilles’ heel threat and create better job security? To reduce the urge for a hospital CEO to displace their current anesthesia providers, you need to:
- Provide the highest quality of medical care to your hospital and surgery centers.
- Provide high service to your hospital and surgery centers.
- Maintain high quality professional relationships with surgeons, other physician specialties, and administrators, so there is little incentive to demand a change.
- Become involved in hospital medical committees and politics, both for self-preservation and because these are roles typically filled by physicians, not nurse anesthetists.
- Avoid greed in negotiations over contracted rates and hospital stipends. By all means acquire the best deal you can, but realize that unreasonable expectations for monetary reimbursement may give the CEO an incentive to seek bids from a national anesthesia company or an alternative anesthesia group.
- Consider moving toward the new Perioperative Surgical Home model, as advocated by the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The PSH is a means for anesthesiologists to become valuable preoperative and postoperative necessities for their health care system, rather than just operating room anesthesia providers (which are easier to replace).
Hospital administrators and CEOs are trained to manage the bottom line. They will consider all reasonable means to reduce expenses. Be aware that your anesthesia group can be seen as a replaceable commodity. Consider points 1 – 6 above, and try not to give your hospital administrator a reason to look elsewhere for anesthesia coverage.
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:
Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below: