Independent Medical Practices Disappearing at a Faster Rate — Let’s Stop This Trend
Hospitals and health networks have been buying up independent medical practices at an accelerated pace in recent years, according to recent research published in the industry journal Health Affairs.
There have been so many such mergers that in some communities, manage care systems are on the verge of having a monopoly. And although antitrust regulators are tasked with preventing monopolies, the acquisitions of smaller practices tend have relatively small price tags, and so they often take place without attracting regulators’ attention.
This is a bad development for our country’s free market system, in which fair competition keeps prices at a reasonable level. And it’s even worse for the healthcare system.
Independent physicians operate in areas that are not always well-served by larger health systems, for example rural areas and urban centers. They are sometimes the only convenient source of care for large numbers of people who live in such areas, as many do not have the means to travel to other cities to see their doctors.
Many patients also prefer to see an independent doctor. In managed care, physicians and patients are sometimes matched arbitrarily, which many patients do not like. Patients want to form a personal bond with their healthcare provider, and this can be daunting when they seek care from larger health networks.
Why Are Independent Doctors Selling Their Practices?
Many medical school graduates want to open clinics and smaller, independent practices so they can deliver care outside of a system that is known for top-down decision-making. Many want to make treatment decisions that are not dictated from above, or influenced strongly by insurance companies.
These doctors find it difficult to make their practices into viable businesses, because the costs associated with regulatory compliance and certificate maintenance are too steep. Many independent physicians grow frustrated because time they should be spending taking care of patients is instead spent filling out piles of paperwork.
The frustrations for independent doctors mount up quickly, and unfortunately, many decide it will simply be easier to survive financially if they sell out to a larger health system.
These consolidations — because they are not being tracked closely enough by regulators — can easily lead to higher prices for health care, as too much power is gathering in the hands of too few providers. It also leads to a narrowing of consumer choices, which is never a good thing in a capitalist economic system.
Solutions to the Problem
In the days following the publication of the report in Health Affairs, health care advocates have been calling out for stricter oversight by the government of such mergers, to prevent monopolies from forming.
But there is another way to attack the problem, one that will put more power into the hands of independent medical practices, so that they will not have to sell to larger health systems out of pure necessity.
Independent physicians need to implement management systems that are modern, connected, hands-on and not entirely software-based. Independent physicians have been using software-based systems, but these have not done a good enough job of helping independent practices stay in business.
We need to empower independent practices to keep their doors open, so that monopolies will not be an issue, and patients can keep the range of choices that they are used to.
Instead of cracking down on mergers, let’s build new management systems for independent practices systems that combine software with human expertise. This way, independent physicians can cut costs, reduce their administrative burdens and prevent them from having to sell to larger systems in the first place.
Read more stories by Dr. Adam Tabriz here.