Friday, January 12, 2007

Which Locomotive are you in Front of?

This article in Southern California Physician in early January seemed to juxtapose with the title of my blog. Lytton Smith M.D. categorizes five different locomotives in the "health train express" which threaten to either derail or provide synergy in converting our present health care non-system into an efficient one focused on optimal patient care and outcomes.

With his permission I have copied a few key remarks:

After 30 years in healthcare, I think of these payment conflicts as locomotives of varying size and power. Each train carries a different constituency.Locomotive No. 1 represents the health plans. Thinking they drive the healthcare train, they charge ahead. Focusing on profits to maintain their stock value causes them to ignore the economics of actually paying for the care they expect from physicians and hospitals.Locomotive No. 2 includes hospitals. They carry the EMTALA burden as best they can. Despite complaining about being underpaid, many thrive by billing high charges for basic services. Health plans ignore the hospital charges because they are contracted. The hospitals with poor payer mixes and poor contracts close their doors or sell to alleviate their burden.Shoveling coal in Locomotive No. 3, the physicians rattle down their track. Due to antitrust rules and their own sense of independence, physicians have trouble coordinating the function of their train. With so many internal conflicts--group practice vs. solo practice, primary care vs. specialties--who has time to watch where the train is headed?In flashy Locomotive No. 4, a scenic rail car, are the legislators. With their top-rated medical insurance and VIP status, they protect themselves from the vicissitudes of medical financial struggles by passing laws to assure themselves that all will be well. Locomotive No. 4, fueled often by the engineers of Locomotive No. 1, looks sleek and rumbles along, trying to avoid seeing Locomotive No. 5.Locomotive No. 5 is the longest train of all, containing patients. With many classes of service, it consumes enormous energy as it moves down the track. Like No. 3, No. 5 has no focused leadership. But because of its enormous size, this train has the most potential momentum. No. 5 occupies the most important track as all the other trains exist to serve it.If Locomotives No. 1, 2 and 3 cannot resolve "fair and reasonable" vs. "usual and customary" issues, I fear that Locomotive No. 5 will push Locomotive No. 4 into crushing the others. The resulting collision will create a force for a single-payer system. The drive for all parties to "get their fair share" may result in an oligarchy in which no one is well served. In this environment, mavericks like Dr. Reddy will surely need to look elsewhere for financial satisfaction.Lytton W. Smith, MD, editor for the OCMA, is a physician practicing family medicine with the St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Yorba Linda. Dr. Smith welcomes feedback on his articles and can be reached at

Perhaps the advent of social health care blogs and the entry of consumer driven plans and opinons will become the "caboose"
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