How to Discourage a Doctor


Not accustomed to visiting hospital executive suites, I took my seat in the waiting room somewhat warily.

Seated across from me was a handsome man in a well-tailored three-piece suit, whose thoroughly professional appearance made me — in my rumpled white coat, sheaves of dog-eared paper bulging from both pockets — feel out of place.

Within a minute, an administrative secretary came out and escorted him into one of the offices. Exhausted from a long call shift and lulled by the quiet, I started to doze off. Soon roused by the sound of my own snoring, I started and looked about.

That was when I spotted the document on an adjacent chair. Its title immediately caught my eye: “How to Discourage a Doctor.”

No one else was about, so I reached over, picked it up, and began to leaf through its pages. It became apparent immediately that it was one of the most remarkable things I had ever read, clearly not meant for my eyes. It seemed to be the product of a health care consulting company, presumably the well-dressed man’s employer. Fearing that he would return any moment to retrieve it, I perused it as quickly as possible. My recollection of its contents is naturally somewhat imperfect, but I can reproduce the gist of what it said:

The stresses on today’s hospital executive are enormous. They include a rapidly shifting regulatory environment, downward pressures on reimbursement rates, and seismic shifts in payment mechanisms. Many leaders naturally feel as though they are building a hospital in the midst of an earthquake. With prospects for revenue enhancement highly uncertain, the best strategy for ensuring a favorable bottom line is to reduce costs. And for the foreseeable future, the most important driver of costs in virtually every hospital will be its medical staff.

Though physician compensation accounts for only about 8% of health care spending, decisions that physicians strongly influence or make directly — such as what medication to prescribe, whether to perform surgery, and when to admit and discharge a patient from the hospital — have been estimated to account for as much as 80% of the nation’s health care budget. To maintain a favorable balance sheet, hospital executives need to gain control of their physicians. Most hospitals have already taken an important step in this direction by employing a growing proportion of their medical staff.

Transforming previously independent physicians into employees has increased hospital influence over their decision making, an effect that has been successfully augmented in many centers by tying physician compensation directly to the execution of hospital strategic initiatives. But physicians have invested many years in learning their craft, they hold their professional autonomy in high esteem, and they take seriously the considerable respect and trust with which many patients still regard them.

As a result, the challenge of managing a hospital medical staff continues to resemble herding cats.

Merely controlling the purse strings is not enough. To truly seize the reins of medicine, it is necessary to do more, to get into the heads and hearts of physicians. And the way to do this is to show physicians that they are not nearly so important as they think they are. Physicians have long seen the patient-physician relationship as the very center of the health care solar system. As we go forward, they must be made to feel that this relationship is not the sun around which everything else orbits, but rather one of the dimmer peripheral planets, a Neptune or perhaps Uranus.

How can this goal be achieved? A complete list of proven tactics and strategies is available to our clients, but some of the more notable include the following:

Make health care incomprehensible to physicians. It is no easy task to baffle the most intelligent people in the organization, but it can be done. For example, make physicians increasingly dependent on complex systems outside their domain of expertise, such as information technology and coding and billing software. Ensure that such systems are very costly, so that solo practitioners and small groups, who naturally cannot afford them, must turn to the hospital. And augment their sense of incompetence by making such systems user-unfriendly and unreliable. Where possible, change vendors frequently.

Promote a sense of insecurity among the medical staff. A comfortable physician is a confident physician, and a confident physician usually proves difficult to control. To undermine confidence, let it be known that physicians’ jobs are in jeopardy and their compensation is likely to decline. Fire one or more physicians, ensuring that the entire medical staff knows about it. Hire replacements with a minimum of fanfare. Place a significant percentage of compensation at risk, so that physicians begin to feel beholden to hospital administration for what they manage to eke out.

Transform physicians from decision makers to decision implementers. Convince them that their professional judgment regarding particular patients no longer constitutes a reliable compass.

Refer to such decisions as anecdotal, idiosyncratic, or simply insufficiently evidence-based. Make them feel that their mission is not to balance benefits and risks against their knowledge of particular patients, but instead to apply broad practice guidelines to the care of all patients. Hiring, firing, promotion, and all rewards should be based on conformity to hospital-mandated policies and procedures.

Subject physicians to escalating productivity expectations. Borrow terminology and methods from the manufacturing industry to make them think of themselves as production-line workers, then convince them that they are not working sufficiently hard and fast. Show them industry standards and benchmarks in comparison to which their output is subpar. On the off chance that their productivity compares favorably, cite numerous reasons that such benchmarks are biased and move the bar progressively higher.

Increase physicians’ responsibility while decreasing their authority. For example, hold physicians responsible for patient satisfaction scores, but ensure that such scores are influenced by a variety of factors over which physicians have little or no control, such as information technology, hospitality of staff members, and parking. The goal of such measures is to induce a state that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness, a growing sense among physicians that whatever they do, they cannot meaningfully influence health care, which is to say the operations of the hospital.

Above all, introduce barriers between physicians and their patients. The more directly physicians and patients feel connected to one another, the greater the threat to the hospital’s control.

When physicians think about the work they do, the first image that comes to mind should be the hospital, and when patients realize they need care, they should turn first to the hospital, not a particular physician. One effective technique is to ensure that patient-physician relationships are frequently disrupted so that the hospital remains the one constant. Another is …


The sound of a door roused me again. The man in the three-piece suit emerged from the office, he and the hospital executive to whom he had been speaking shaking hands and smiling. As he turned, I looked about. Where was “How to Discourage a Doctor?” It was not on the table, nor was it on the chair where I had first found it. “Will he think I took it?” I wondered. But instead of stopping to look for it, he simply walked out of the office. As I watched him go, one thing became clear: Having read that document, I suddenly felt a lot less discouraged.

Richard Gunderman is a professor of radiology, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN. 

3 thoughts on “How to Discourage a Doctor

  1. Painful to read and more painful to realize that the American “healthcare” system has moved to the forefront of toxic workplaces. For patients and those who care for and about them the consequences are dire starting with pervasive conflictual relationships and moving on to “burnout.” Even more daunting is the enormous monetization involved in fostering a system that is ethically bankrupt. The result is a degree of entropy that precludes reform. The solution is in the creation of an alternative system that takes the care of the patient as its raison d’être. That’s a poignant windmill.

  2. Excellent piece, Richard!

    After more than three decades in internal medicine/geriatrics, I can appreciate the satire here.

    My position is 60% administrative/40% clinical. So, I review authorizations, do chart reviews for utilization and quality and review patient satisfaction scores. From that I can tell that there are problems on both sides.

    I’m often surprised that our physicians reject the notion of patient satisfaction entirely. There must be few professions where the satisfaction of the client/customer can be so readily dismissed. As I tell some of our doctors, it’s been my experience that when a patient has been treated with care and compassion, they rarely complain about parking. The information systems, hospitality and parking are the same for all the physicians yet some do quite well on satisfaction and others don’t. Guess which group complains.

    Also, in reviewing requests for procedures and tests, busy doctors can be less attentive to appropriateness than they should be. We spend about twice as much on healthcare as any other developed country. We need to learn to be more attentive to issues of appropriateness.

    When my father went into medical practice there were two antibiotics, no CT nor MRI scans and no angiographic procedures. Life was simpler. As doctors now control hundreds of billions of dollars of medical expense, we can hardly expect carte blanche.

    So, this is complex issue. But, this view from the exam room was very well done.


    PS Where can I get the full text of “How to Discourage a Doctor”??

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