Posts Tagged ‘oncologists’

Some of America’s Doctors Are Going Broke

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Many of America’s physicians have an embarrassing secret — they are going broke. This quandary is claiming a wide range of casualties, including family physicians, cardiologists and oncologists.

Industry insiders are concerned about the trend.  Approximately 50 percent of all doctors operate a private practice. If a cash crunch forces the closure of an independent practice, it robs a community of a vital healthcare resource.  “A lot of independent practices are starting to see serious financial issues,” said Marc Lion, CEO of Lion & Company CPAs, LLC, which advises independent physician practices about their finances.  Doctors say that smaller insurance reimbursements, changing regulations, soaring business and drug costs take away from their practices’ profitability. Some experts counter that doctors’ lack of business sense shares the blame.

Recent steep 35 percent to 40 percent cuts in Medicare reimbursements for key cardiovascular services, such as stress tests and echocardiograms, have taken a substantial toll on revenue for cardiologists, as an example.  Federal law requires that Medicare reimbursement rates be adjusted every year based on a formula tied to the economy’s health. That law says rates need to be cut every year to keep Medicare financially sound.

Although Congress has blocked those cuts 13 times over the 10 years, most recently on December with a two-month temporary “patch,” this dilemma haunts doctors every year.

Beau Donegan, senior executive with a hospital cancer center in Newport Beach, CA, is well aware of physicians’ financial woes.  “Many are too proud to admit that they are on the verge of bankruptcy,” she said. “These physicians see no way out of the downward spiral of reimbursement, escalating costs of treating patients and insurance companies deciding when and how much they will pay them.

“This is a very timely and truthful story for doctors and hospitals in America. This is also a 911 call for U.S. healthcare security.  More importantly, when a doctor is ‘$3.2 million in debt’ or has to force 6,000 cancer patients to look for a new doctor”, as reported by CNN Money, “our healthcare system infrastructure earthquake is coming,” says Dr. Jin Zhou, president of, a national expert on PPACA and ERISA appeals and compliance.  This 2012 CNN Money report is consistent with an AMA report on March 4, 2011 that 51 percent of doctors in Texas are going broke: “51 percent of Texas doctors dug into personal funds to keep practices afloat in 2010,” Dr. Zhou said.

Writing in Forbes, Rick Ungar counters that “While there is considerable truth to be found in the CNN Money piece, a deeper analysis is in order given the knee-jerk reaction by the many who are too quick to place the problem and the blame at the feet of the federal government.  First off, it is important to recognize that not all physicians in the healthcare system are facing financial crisis. About 50 percent of the nation’s doctors are employed, typically by hospitals, and receive a salary in exchange for their service. So far, these practitioners do not appear to be in any significant financial danger.”

The financial problems are typically experienced by a portion of the remaining 50 percent who wish to operate their own private practices and, as a result, find themselves suffering from the financial stresses faced by so many small businesses in these difficult times.  Yet, even among this 50 percent, not all private practices areas are in trouble. For example, surgeons and dermatologists seem to be doing just fine while cardiologists and oncologists, whose business models necessarily make them more susceptible to trouble, are feeling the pain.

Why oncology and cardiology?

Part of the blame does rest with changes in Medicare and Medicaid payment policies. Certainly, cardiologists and oncologists, whose practices naturally bring them into contact with more senior citizens, are the most likely to feel the pain when it comes to reduced government payments. Last year, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) took a hatchet to what is paid to cardiologists for performing important tests such as echocardiograms, stress tests and other “machine” based testing. But what you may not know is that these reductions were based on a survey conducted by the American Medical Association, at the request of the CMS, that seemed to go out of its way to omit cardiologists in private practice from the survey participants. Why? Because private practice cardiologists have, by and large, dropped out of the AMA and the AMA’s interest was in getting more money set aside for those medical practitioners in other areas of medicine who remain members.

Shortage of Radiation Oncologists Could Impact Cancer Patients

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Demand for radiation oncologists will outstrip supply by a factor of 10 over the next decade.  The U.S. medical community is experiencing a shortage of radiation oncologists, with demand outpacing supply by a factor of 10 over the next decade. According to a report published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology. the number of radiation oncologists joining the workforce over the next decade is expected to rise by just two percent.  During the same timeframe, the number of patients diagnosed with cancers requiring radiation therapy will rise by 22 percent, notes Dr. Benjamin Smith of the Department of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Adults aged 65 and older are expected to comprise 38 percent of the demand for radiology services over the next 10 years; minorities will comprise 45 percent of the demand, according to the report.  A major point of the report is that cancers need to be treated with radiation therapy as quickly as possible to reduce the size of the tumor and avoid growth.  Patients who have to wait longer for a limited number of radiation oncologists will have delayed appointments.  “Shortages mean double trouble,” Smith said.  “Since research has shown that a delay between diagnosis and the start of radiation therapy can reduce its effectiveness, oncologists and radiologists must collaborate even more so the quality of care doesn’t break down at multiple points.”

According to the report, the researchers estimated demand for radiation therapy by multiplying current use against population growth projections and current use.  Smith suggests three strategies that could make up for some of the slack.  One is to have physician’s assistants and advanced practice registered nurses help doctors increase the number of patients who can be treated at a single time.  Another is to cut the number of radiation therapy treatments, which can be equally effective as longer courses.  Smith’s third recommendation is to increase the size of residency programs to educate more radiation oncologists.

Healthcare: Saving Lives or Prolonging Suffering?

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

There is a cacophony of voices in the media talking about healthcare reform, but it’s more heat than light.  That why Atul Gawande’s most recent article in The New Yorker is so important. Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital general and endocrine surgeon Gawande examines how the trend to prolonging life is one of the reasons behind soaring healthcare costs.Is healthcare saving lives or prolonging suffering?  Everyone needs to read this.

According to Dr. Gawande in Letting Go, “Twenty-five percent of all Medicare spending is for the five percent of patients who are in the final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months which is of little apparent benefit.  Medical spending for a breast-cancer survivor, for example, averaged an estimated $54,000 in 2003, the vast majority of it for the initial diagnostic testing, surgery, and, where necessary, radiation and chemotherapy.  For a patient with a fatal version of the disease, though, the cost curve is U-shaped, rising again toward the end – to an average of $63,000 during the last six months of life with incurable breast cancer.

The big question Gawande poses is thus:  What are we getting in return?  “Patients who were put on a mechanical ventilator,” Dr. Gawande continues, “given electrical defibrillation or chest compressions, or admitted, near death, to intensive care, had a substantially worse quality of life in their last week than those who received no such interventions.  And, six months after their death, their caregivers were three times as likely to suffer major depression.”

Dr. Gawande notes that in one study, “Researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or congestive heart failure.  Surprisingly, they found no difference in survival time between hospice and non-hospice patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer.  Curiously, hospice care seemed to extend survival for some patients; those with pancreatic cancer gained an average of three weeks, those with lung cancer gained six weeks, and those with congestive heart failure gained three months.  The lesson seems almost Zen:  you live longer only when you stop trying to live longer.”

In one case Dr. Gawande describes, “Aetna decided to let a group of policy-holders with a life expectancy of less than one year receive hospice services without forgoing other treatments.  A patient like Sara Monopoli (who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 34) could continue to try chemotherapy and radiation, and go to the hospital when she wished – but also have a hospice team at home focusing on what she needed for the best possible life now and for that morning when she might wake up unable to breathe.  A two-year study of this ‘concurrent care’ program found that enrolled patients were more likely to use hospice:  the figure leaped from 26 percent to 70 percent.  That was no surprise, since they weren’t forced to give up anything.  The surprising result was that they did give up things.  They visited the emergency room almost half as often as the control patients did.  Their use of hospitals and I.C.U.s dropped by more than two-thirds.  Overall costs fell by almost a quarter.”