A fictional tale of medical economics in heart disease

Dr. Robert Connors is the hospital’s most prized cardiologist.

Practically a fixture in the cath lab, he generates more revenues for the hospital than any of his colleagues. Last year alone, he performed over 1500 procedures, bringing in $18 million dollars to the cath lab, $27 million to the hospital. Dr. Connors is very good at what he does: 55-years old, he has been involved in high-tech heart care since the “early days,” 25 years ago, when hospital procedures really began to take off.

Over his career, he has personally performed over 25,000 heart procedures and has built a reputation as a skilled operator of complex coronary procedures. Because of his skills, he enjoys a vigorous flow of referrals for procedures from dozens of primary care physicians. His skill has also earned him referrals from cardiologist colleagues who seek his abilities for difficult cases.

On any day, Dr. Connors typically schedules up to 12 procedures. His entire day is spent in the cath lab, usually from 7 am until 6 pm. He meets many patients for the first time on the catheterization laboratory table as staff shave their groin, preparing for the procedure. Much of the procedure itself is not even performed by Dr. Connors, but by one or another cardiologists-in-training, a “fellow,” or member of the fellowship the hospital proudly maintains as a clinical teaching institution. Nor will Dr. Connors talk to most patients at the close of the procedure. He leaves that to either the fellow or a nurse. Dr. Connors views himself as a procedural specialist, not someone who has to take care of patients. He gave up seeing patients in his office over 10 years ago.

Dr. Connors’ procedural enthusiasm gained him the attention of drug and medical device manufacturers. Because Dr. Connors lectures widely and advises colleagues, his comments can dramatically alter perceptions of the value of a technology. He has, on many occasions, catapulted an unpopular device to most-asked-for among colleagues, bringing millions of dollars in revenues to the manufacturer. One particularly lucrative arrangement he made around 10 years ago involved a “closure” device, a $400 single-use plug used to close the access site made during heart catheterizations. By swaying his colleagues at _______ Hospital, 50 orders per day (one per procedure) tallied $20,000 every day, $7.1 million dollars per year for the manufacturer. Although he’d used other devices on the market, the 5,000 shares of stock he was offered encouraged him to issue glowing comments to colleagues on the superiority of this specific brand of closure device. Now over 90% of all catheterizations at _______ Hospital conclude with the device manufactured by the company in which Dr. Connors maintains partial ownership.

Negative comments, on the other hand, topple other products when Dr. Connors sees fit to pan them. For this reason, device and drug manufacturers run straight to Dr. Connors to gain his good graces as soon as possible after a product is released into the market. Because the competition is just as likely to do the same, it has often come down to a bidding war, the company providing the most lucrative arrangement most likely to win.

Thus, Dr. Connors proudly boasts of how many times he has flown to Hawaii, Europe, and other exotic locations at industry expense. He also boasts of how, for $100,000 paid to him for a “consulting fee,” he can overturn the choice of products lining hospital shelves. As the hospital’s annual budget for coronary devices will top $84,000,000 this year, device manufacturers regard the sum paid Connors as a profitable investment.

Despite his lofty status in the hospital, Dr. Connors has long expressed a love-hate relationship with ________ Hospital. While he enjoys his work and has made a more than comfortable income, he has long felt that the hospital administration didn’t truly appreciate his contributions. Five years ago, he therefore demanded that he be made “Director of Research.” After all, he had hired a nurse to help him coordinate enrollment of patients into several device trials brought to him by medical device manufacturers. When he encountered an initial lukewarm response from hospital administrators, he threatened to take his “business” elsewhere to a competing hospital. Hospital administrators gave in. They provided him with the title he wanted, along with $100,000 annual “stipend.”

Just fiction? Make no bones about it: Cardiac care is business, big business. And there's money to be made, lots of it.

Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD

Comments (2) -

  • Anonymous

    3/23/2008 12:24:00 PM |

    For a chuckle thought to mention a  story this morning.  I pass on to others what you write about heart disease and my father has recently joined me in doing the same.  Dad lives in a small community in Florida and several of his neighbors are doctors.  One retired doctor dad recently met has found what you write of great interest.  After looking at your sight, he was telling my father that long before vitamin D became as popular as it has in the last few years, he had been urging his patients to supplement their diet with D3.  The doctor is apparently famous in his field as he is a pioneer in sex change procedures and medicines, which even though I know is serious for people that feel they need a sex change, I can't help but chuckle like a young boy at his former line of work.  My father was telling me that his doctor neighbor is in his 80s and yet would have never guessed it.  He looks like he is in his 50s or 60s.  The doctor credits taking vitamin D for most of life for his youthfulness.

    I better end this and make the internet rounds.  I have a few exotic car forum to visit.  The Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus, etc. high end car sights is where you find doctors hanging out.  It's like donut shops to cops.

  • Rich

    3/24/2008 5:07:00 AM |

    Dr. Davis: We need to get as many medical journalists as possible to read this and other brilliant posts by you.