Micromanaging medical care contributes to physician burnout

By Arcelita Imasa and Seiji Yamada
Honolulu Star Advertiser, Jan. 24, 2018

Projected increases in health costs in Hawaii are growing public concerns.

The Star-Advertiser published a Jan. 14 editorial and a Jan. 21 story on the rising-cost drivers, identified as “an aging population, prescription drugs, expensive technology and procedures, as well as unhealthy lifestyles that lead to costly chronic illnesses.”

Just this past Saturday, at the medical student-organized “Doctors Create Local Solutions” event, physicians gathered to propose medically informed solutions to Hawaii’s health care crisis. As Dr. Stephen Kemble pointed out: Until 2017, the United Health Foundation’s annual ranking had placed Hawaii as the healthiest state for five years. Furthermore, prior to the Affordable Care Act, Hawaii had among the lowest commercial health insurance costs, and our Medicare costs were the lowest in the country.

That is, Hawaii’s medical community had not been guilty of resource overutilization. Nonetheless, administrative oversight to micromanage physicians has burgeoned in recent decades. Insurance requirements, including prior authorization for tests or therapies and increasing documentation requirements, force physicians to spend two additional hours on electronic health records and desk work for every hour with patients, plus an hour or two in the evenings.

Perhaps you have noticed that your doctor has her eyes glued to her computer screen. Sadly, much of what she is documenting has more to do with coding and billing requirements than with caring for you.

None of us went into medicine in order to stare at a computer screen. We are now forced to. This contributes to physician burnout. Dr. Kelley Withy noted that over 50 percent of physicians admit to burnout, and 15-30 percent of practicing doctors and 29 percent of resident doctors are depressed. Yearly, approximately 400 U.S. physicians commit suicide.

Kemble suggested that elimination of pay-for-documentation would help restore professional autonomy and morale, and that a physician payment system based on time spent would help eliminate the perverse incentive to avoid caring for the sickest patients.

Particularly on the neighbor islands, doctors are acutely aware of the physician shortage. Although Withy noted that the state is short 769 physicians, there are only 121 job openings. Big Island pediatrician Wesley Sugai, for one, listed the variety of management tasks that private practitioners perform. Many will be retiring soon, but most young medical graduates prefer a salaried position.

While it is undeniable that “unhealthy lifestyles” contribute to health care costs, a minority of patients drives those costs. Of Hawaii’s 1.4 million people, 365,000 are covered by Medicaid (MedQUEST). As noted by physician and state Sen. Josh Green, of the $2 billion annual expenditure on Medicaid, $1.2 billion is spent on the 15,000 sickest patients.

To bend the cost curve, we need to identify the sickest and make them healthier, so that they won’t need the emergency department or hospital admission. Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, who applied “hotspotting” to Camden, N.J., suggested strengthening primary care and supportive services. This is, in fact, the mission of federally qualified health centers.

The Jan. 21 Star-Advertiser article (“Health care costs heading for eventual catastrophe”) quoted the owner of Nii Superette as saying that if Hawaii’s employer mandate for health insurance collapses, we may need “a model like universal health care.” After the end of our program Saturday, Dr. Leslie Gise urged the newly formed Hawaii chapter of the Students for a National Health Program to work for “Medicare for all” —and led the students in the cheer, “Everybody in, nobody out!”

Arcelita Imasa, of Honolulu, is a medical student; Seiji Yamada, of Milillani, is a family physician.