Healthcare roundup: Doctor shortages everywhere, why the states can't do universal healthcare, how to reform consumer drug ads, and more

Patients, patients everywhere, yet not a doc to treat – From Massachusetts to Colorado, there’s an increasingly acute shortage of primary-care physicians. In Massachusetts, where the nation’s only universal healthcare plan is gearing up, hundreds of thousands of newly insured individuals are having trouble finding doctors. According to this report, new patients wait an average of 52 days to see an internist or family doctor for a routine visit, and with up to 500,000 people set to get insurance this year, the head of the Massachusetts Medical Society is predicting a crisis of healthcare access. There’s more here and here, just for starters. Google “Massachusetts doctor shortage” for much more.

Things aren’t much better elsewhere across the country. In Colorado, a new report finds that close to a third of the state’s primary-care docs are 55 and over, and that relatively few younger docs are entering the field to replace them. (See the PDF report itself here.) Meanwhile, those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are also finding it increasingly difficult to get treatment because so many doctors have either stopped accepting Medicaid patients or severely limited their numbers. The WSJ Health Blog has more, including another post about two Illinois clinics sued by the state for allegedly colluding to stop seeing new Medicaid patients.

The reason for the doctor shortage is actually pretty simple: Salaries are much, much higher in specialties such as surgery and radiology than they are for your workaday general practitioner — sometimes by a factor of two or more, the NYT reports — and the workload is often less. Primary-care physicians also perform fewer complex medical procedures, which limits the reimbursement they can seek from insurers or Medicare.

The rest is pretty much just supply and demand — and a useful reminder that real fixes for the nation’s busted healthcare system are going to demand some fairly dramatic changes. Some radicals like Alan Garber, a Stanford healthcare expert quoted in the NYT, would like to see doctors paid fixed salaries and bonuses based on how healthy they keep their patients, which would level the playing field among physician specialties and create incentives to treat and prevent illness instead of just treating it with the most expensive procedures available. Just imagine how excited the American Medical Association would be about that.

States can’t do healthcare reform alone – While we’re on the subject, this piece by Ezra Klein in the Washington Monthly makes a compelling argument that states can’t provide universal healthcare on their own. It’s a complex argument, but much of it boils down to the fact that states typically can’t sustain the heavier healthcare costs brought on when recessions throw more people out of work and the health insurance they get from employers. Klein notes the “cruel irony” that state healthcare spending typically gets cut during downturns, just when people tend to need government help the most. Only the federal government, he suggests, has the resources to maintain and even expand healthcare programs when times get tough. (For the internecine warfare that broke out among liberal progressive bloggers shortly after Klein’s article was published, see here, particularly the comments.)

First thing, we kill all the ad salesmen – Although free-market types like to talk about drug advertising as providing a “useful source of information” to consumers, the reality is a lot more complex. Advertising essentially creates demand for many drugs, leading patients to visit their doctors waving magazine ads or asking about “the little purple pill” (a fantastically effective campaign earlier this decade for the heartburn drug Nexium). Needless to say, very little of this has anything to do with keeping people healthy, and quite a lot to do with boosting drug sales.

Over at BrandweekNRX, Jim Edwards pens a farewell post offering 10 drug-advertising reforms that would do a lot to make pharmaceutical-marketing programs more informational and less manipulative. With Congress having apparently passed on letting the FDA regulate drug ads more thoroughly, though, the odds of any of these idea passing into law seems remote at best.

Additional oddball note: Jim’s replacement at BrandweekNRX is none other than Peter Rost, former Pfizer marketing exec-turned-scathing critic of the industry that once paid him. Rost has an odd sense of humor and can certainly carry on at times, but he’s entertaining, muckraking, and always worth a read.

Hospitals as charity cases? – One of the tradeoffs involved in running a hospital as a nonprofit entity, a status that grants some pretty hefty tax breaks, involves providing charity care to the indigent. It turns out, though, that many hospitals are pleading poverty themselves. A recent IRS report, noted in the WSJ Health Blog, found that nearly a quarter of nonprofit hospitals spent less than one percent of their revenue on care for the disadvantaged, while half spent less than three percent. Now moves are afoot in Congress to require nonprofit hospitals to devote at least five percent of revenue to charity care. For more, follow the link.

Briefly noted:

  • Congress is struggling to increase funding for a federal program that insures poorer kids, against a veto threat from President Bush. The NYT and the WSJ Health Blog have more.
  • A severely brain-damaged man regained his speech after treatment with pulses of electric current, the NYT reports.
  • Medicare relaxed proposed guidelines that would limit the use of anemia drugs like Amgen’s Aranesp in cancer patients, after safety problems emerged; Amgen promptly challenged the watered-down guidelines.
  • Researchers reported finding a genetic link to multiple sclerosis; surprisingly, there’s also one for “restless legs syndrome,” which some cynics considered a pharmaceutical-company invention.
  • Older docs square off with their younger colleagues — and academics, patients, and others — over whether it’s a good idea to limit the work hours of notoriously sleep-deprived residents in comments at the WSJ Health Blog.