w-b-park-sure-we-doctors-make-a-lot-of-money-but-don-t-forget-we-spend-a-heck-new-yorker-cartoonI just finished reading The Celestial Society, a biography of George Burch written by his daughter Vivian. I knew him as an older attending who seemed oddly out of touch with students. I now know that he was a beaten, sick man at the time I had contact with him. I also found out that he never deviated from his core belief that what medical schools needed to do was train good generalist physicians and develop tools to allow these generalists to become better doctors. He was Chairman of Medicine at Tulane for 30 years, forced out in the 1970s when he opposed the creation of a practice plan to capture faculty patient care revenues. The dean and the chancellor both felt that without the ability to harness this revenue source, Tulane would be forced to shut down.

It is amazing how much medicine changed in the 40 years of Dr Burch’s career. Dr Burch’s entire career was at Tulane and spanned from the 1920s to the mid 1980s. When he started the EKG “machine” was a string galvanometer and was only done on selected patients. He was instrumental in describing variants of EKGs, wrote the first book on interpretation which made the technology available to all clinicians and developed the circuitry which allowed all 12 leads to be measured simultaneously. All the while he was on faculty at Tulane, making very little money when compared to his private practice colleagues and caring for poor patients at Charity Hospital. To him the academic “life of the mind” and the noble activity of caring for the poor sick should have been rewarded by society. The building of a University Hospital with the corresponding contractually obligated faculty sounded the death knell for this type of medical practice.

The conflict at Tulane was the result of Dr Burch’s stature in the world of Cardiology and the perception that his belief regarding cardiac surgery were holding up progress. He believed that outcomes were terrible. His perception was that patients were more likely to die from the surgery than the disease, a belief grounded in observation but since surgeons kept no data not measurable. He believed that surgeons were uneven at best (again, unmeasurable) and in reality it was the post-surgical care that mattered the most. He abhorred the “chance to cut is a chance to cure” mentality and in his clinical experience many people would be better served to have nothing done than to subject themselves to angioplasty or surgery. Tulane wanted him to refer his patients exclusively to Tulane surgeons and likely expected a larger number of patients to be referred, conditions to which he was unwilling to agree. Medicine was moving into an entrepreneurial direction and Dr Burch was being left behind.

Dr Burch died in 1986. Tulane continues to thrive (at least according to the alumni magazine) despite not being in Charity Hospital at all. Many of his beliefs regarding invasive cardiology have been affirmed. Meanwhile, the article on colonoscopy in today’s New York Times, illustrates the cost we have paid for dismissing Dr Burch’s warnings regarding our abandonment of the generalist physician model and embrace of the entrepreneurial model of medicine.

The high price paid for colonoscopies mostly results not from top-notch patient care, according to interviews with health care experts and economists, but from business plans seeking to maximize revenue; haggling between hospitals and insurers that have no relation to the actual costs of performing the procedure; and lobbying, marketing and turf battles among specialists that increase patient fees….

When popularized in the 1980s, outpatient surgical centers were hailed as a cost-saving innovation because they cut down on expensive hospital stays for minor operations likeknee arthroscopy. But the cost savings have been offset as procedures once done in a doctor’s office have filled up the centers, and bills have multiplied.

It is a lucrative migration. The Long Island center was set up with the help of a company based in Pennsylvania called Physicians Endoscopy. On its Web site, the business tells prospective physician partners that they can look forward to “distributions averaging over $1.4 million a year to all owners,” “typically 100 percent return on capital investment within 18 months” and “a return on investment of 500 percent to 2,000 percent over the initial seven years.”

To quote Chairman George, “I’m not antisurgery, I’m pro-patient.”

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