Sunday, May 10, 2009

Medical Horror Stories, Physician Incompetence

Unfortunately, most Americans eventually experience one or more medical horror stories. One problem with American health care is that some (not all, not most, but some) doctors and hospital administrators are embarrassments to their profession. One answer to America's health care problems is to put the bad doctors and the deficient hospitals out of business.

Individuals who don't have health insurance and pay out of their own pockets for health care deserve more choices and better prices. In Dr. Gratzer's case (in a previous column), he was paying out of his own pocket, and was told (sort of) that the price for his wife's surgery was "negotiable." Shortly after that, the hospital's collection agency started dunning him for payment.

A few months after my wife had her devastating stroke in 1991, I received a notice of delinquency from a primary care physician (billing service I guess) saying that if the payment was not received immediately, it would be subject to collection and that my credit would be damaged, etc.

What was the "delinquent fee? It was $0.07 -- that's right, seven cents. I thought the doctor (Wendy Klein in Springfield, Vermont) and her service had lost their minds. How could any responsible business engage in such atrocious behavior? I never received an explanation. I refused to pay the seven cents.

I've also written about my brother's experience. He was indigent for various reasons, and he went into the emergency room because his blood pressure had dropped and he was faint. He was in the hospital for 30 hours. The diagnosis was "syncope," which means the symptoms he had. Syncope is one step up from a headache.

The first bill I saw was $22,600. There were many bills, all with wildly varying numbers -- making them up as they went along. I never received an explanation for the syncope -- until later, when a non-physician explained to me that what my brother had experienced was a vagus nerve problem. Vagus nerve problems and syncope go together like a horse-and-carriage. No one at the hospital, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) gave any sort of coherent explanation.

My brother's family care doctor (Dr. Catena)? My brother because he had no money received free drugs from Pfizer and others. Pfizer insisted that they had to go to the doctor, assumed to be a responsible individual. The doctor's repeatedly "lost" the pills, meaning occasionally that my brother ran out of them. The doctor didn't give a damn and regarded having to receive and process the pills as an imposition -- i.e., he wasn't getting paid for his activities.

My experience (and I have many others, some perhaps worse, given my wife's condition) is that most people regard what goes on at hospitals as a giant scam, one designed to enrich the people involved (aside from the nurses and the maintenance personnel).

Two months after my wife emerged post-stroke from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire, she let me know -- she has experessive aphasia -- that she expected to die soon.(That was 18 years ago, and she's fine). It turned out that none of the overpaid boobs at Hitchcock had even given her a prognosis, so she assumed she must be near death.

There is much more about Hitchcock. One guy (neurologist Dr. Williamson) making $330,000-plus a year put her on a Closed Circuit monitoring device . . . and then never checked the monitor. His explanation, "Hey, you know those CC devices cost a lot of money, and we need to keep them operating!" If one were allowed to punch eminent physicians, I would have given that creep, that incompetent, two black eyes. To him, my wife was not a human being; she was a revenue stream.

Yes, some physicians are superb, professionals actually dedicated to making their patients better. However, I look at many doctors, and I see . . . Dr. Williamson . . . with his $300,000 salary (now doubled I'm sure) and his five cent medicine. When I visualize that overpaid egotist, I see a person who's a menace to patients.

As you whould know, UPMC, with its $22,600 bill for my brother, is one step up from a criminal enterprise. In that regard, it's a major supporter of Cong. John Murtha. They have given him more than a quarter-million dollars in exchange for the many millions in earmarks he's given them.

I'm sure UPMC will thrive under socialized medicine. It will provide less care than it already does (if that is physically possible) and still make hefty sums.

I support a more traditional form of medicine not because the current system -- and the physicians who operate under it -- are free from flaws, some of them major, but rather because I believe a private enterprise approach will lead to the best quality care at the most reasonable costs.

Frankly, I wish at least a few more doctors (other than Dr. Gratzer) shared my perspective. Too many physicians -- and too many hospital administrators around the country are embarrassments to their profession. They generate hostility because they falsely assume they can do no wrong.

"First do no harm," and then physicians need to heal themselves.

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