The Business of Medicine

The primary reason I love what I do is that gaining competitive advantage (as in being able to stay in business and provide for a family) requires a commitment to continuous learning. If I could change one thing about myself after all these years it would be to increase my reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. I often get frustrated by not having enough time to learn everything I would like.

Sometimes learning isn’t so much about discovery as it is connecting the dots you’ve discovered previously. You are engendered to reconsider what once were disparate pieces of knowledge and see how they can be formed into new thinking. This was the case for me recently when I read a blog post of A Country Doctor MD contributing to the KevinMD.Com blog site.

The article, If a doctor isn’t face to face with a patient, is he still a doctor? explores the fundamentals of a physician’s business model in lieu of regulated fee for service payment methodology. It explores the often paradoxical relationship between between time and money in the practice of medicine. I found that the issues and challenges described resonated with me because I have to deal with the same business issues and challenges.

There are parallels between the practice of medicine and consulting. Both businesses’ core value proposition is individual knowledge, reasoning and the ability to collaborate with others to solve problems. The risks and consequences of getting the right solution in medicine are decidedly much greater – and this should be reflected in higher comparative compensation. But I don’t think that is universally true by a stretch, and here’s why.

As the leader of a small boutique consulting firm determining how to price and sell engagements is a constant challenge. You are always building on your knowledge, so that the next client gets the benefit of what you learned working with the client before (I don’t know this to be true, but I would imagine it’s a similar situation with physicians: it’s a practice). We are always wrestling with how to price services when the value proposition is a desired outcome while the measurement of cost is in units of time.

And you get more efficient as you practice, so that the relative work effort to produce solutions decreases as experience increases. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher income because you have to remain market competitive. Of course, ideally over time your hourly rate increases to reflect the increase in value provided: getting the right solutions faster. That is, in consulting at least.

I don’t want to belabor the nuances of professional services business models. I share these observations simply to make a point. In consulting, we have the luxury of pricing our work based upon what we think is in the best long-term financial interests of ourselves and our consulting practice. The physician who is forced to accept a payment schedule – whether from governmental agencies or private insurers – does not have that luxury.

With the recent release by CMS of the Provider Utilization and Payment data there have been reverberations in the media about physician income and the relative contribution of cost to our healthcare system. I am not advocating for less transparency even if, as I wrote last week, the data as it was released is quite misleading. All I am saying is that given the comparative amount of education required (time and cost), the stress level involved and the regulatory handcuffs applied, I wouldn’t want to trade. I think this is something that policymakers had better consider and understand very soon – because I can’t stand the site of blood, nor read fast enough.

Cheers,
  Sparky

Photograph: from thechart.blogs.cnn.com

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