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January 2, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Medicine as Business: The Financial Profitability of Medical Treatment

By Jeany Miller More Blogs by This Author

America’s debate over healthcare and doctors’ salaries is nothing new. This began long ago and continues to rage today. The problem is that new information seems to continually spark controversy. Not surprisingly, still more concerns are being raised now that some cancer doctors suggest their incomes are tied to such patient treatments as chemotherapy and other drugs.

An Incentive-Based Treatment Plan

According to Andrew Seaman, a writer for Medline Plus, researchers found that "oncologists, surgeons, and other cancer specialists who get paid based on the number of services they provide were seven times more likely to say their pay increases when they oversee their patients' chemotherapy treatments, compared to doctors who are paid a flat rate or salary."

This seems to validate the theory that physicians purposefully tailor their treatment to line their pockets. This further leads credence to the idea that doctors may be prescribing certain treatments (i.e. chemotherapy) whether they or necessary or not.

According to the study, performed by researchers from Boston’s Harvard Medical School and Brigham Women’s Hospital, many oncologists offer chemo directly from their offices. Previous studies found some cancer doctors receive upwards of 65% of their annual income strictly from administering these treatments.

The Pharmaceutical Influence

This study may be surprising, but it's not the first of it's kind. A 2012 Pro Publica investigation tied a direct link between physicians and drug manufacturers. The study showed that doctors are being paid to push certain prescriptions on their patients. Thankfully, the result of their investigation is that, starting this year, all physicians must report all money received from pharmaceutical companies to the federal government, and these records will be viewable for public consumption. But will such oversight be sufficient to stop the growing question in patients’ minds: is this treatment really necessary?

In recent years, whistleblower lawsuits have forced drug companies to pay out billions dollars to settle allegations that they gave kickbacks to physicians prescribing their drugs. But studies have also shown that even small dinners and other seemingly innocent benefits have created an opportunity to influence physicians to feel kindly toward a certain drug or product. As a result, they may become biased even if they’re not fully aware of it.

The Profitability of Medical Care

Sometimes, however, doctors are fully responsible for their own actions. Take, for instance, the anesthesiologist in Santa Monica who, in three years, earned approximately half a million dollars giving promotional talks and consultation services for four different drug companies.

But ours is a nation that has grown accustomed to extremes, as recognized by Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. In his book How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Rank About Being Sick in America, Brawley suggests well-insured patients are often “overtreated,” receiving unproven drugs and procedures that can cause real harm. Patients with no money, on the other hand, often receive no care until they’re “sick enough or old enough for government benefits to kick in.” And at that point, money can be made on uncontrolled diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, and late-stage cancer.

It seems as though America’s healthcare system is broken. Until it’s repaired, experts recommend that patients ask doctors if they’ll be compensated for administering a particular treatment. If a doctor responds yes, and the patient is uncomfortable, he or she should feel free to ask if other alternatives might be worth exploring.


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