Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Philadelphia Medicine
The first hospital, the first medical school, the first medical society, and abundant Civil War casualties, all combined to establish the most important medical center in the country. It's still the second largest industry in the city.

Medical Economics
Some Philadelphia physicians are contributors to current national debates on the financing of medical care.

Insurance in Philadelphia
Early Philadelphia took a lead in insurance innovation. Some ideas, like life insurance, flourished. Others have faded.

Academia in the Philadelphia Region
Higher education is a source of pride, progress, and aggravation.

Philadelphia Economics


Health Insurance
Clinton Health Plan and its replacements.

Academia, Medical Version
The first hospital in America generated the first medical school, the first medical society, and many of the unique features of American medicine. In modern times, the gusher of federal research funds not only distorted academic medicine, but academia as a whole.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

John Kastor

Everybody ends up getting fired in a recent book by John Kastor about recent events at the University of Pennsylvania just like everybody ending up dead in an Elizabethan play. The vital difference, of course, is that the dramatis personae at Penn can still relate to a bewildered audience their own versions of those grand events. To protect himself, the author peppers his book with more footnotes than a PhD. thesis. And thousands of stakeholders at the University can now realize that during those eventful times they were as clueless as Rosencranz and Guildenstern.

One basic fact about that institution is that the medical school spends three quarters of the entire university budget. That leads to grudges in the little law school, the little engineering school, and the little president's office, as they knuckle under to the Golden Rule. The department chairman with the gold, makes the rules. Since most of that gold comes from research grants, hence ultimately from the federal government, the medical students and the teaching faculty don't have the same power they had during the Vietnam War era, either. Although medical school tuition imposes a crushing burden on the students and their families, leading to debts close to a quarter of a million dollars apiece, the tuition money doesn't amount to much in the university scheme of things, either. In some schools, tuition amounts to two percent of the medical school budget. You could eliminate the students entirely and not see much difference in the "school".

Unfortunately, when you become dependent on government grants, you find they can suddenly be terminated, or awarded without funding, or held up for several months by Congressional bickering. Meanwhile, there are salaries to pay, contracts to fulfill. Even if you can furlough some of the staff, it's not easy to see what you do about a thirty-year mortgage on a research building when there is a lull in its research funding. If you try to save money, the granting agency will try to get it back; they aren't authorized to make grants to be squirreled away. If you shift money to unauthorized uses, you risk going to jail. And yet, if you don't do something along those lines, the whole enterprise can collapse.

Having said that much to be fair, it is still uncomfortable to see the financial transparency of our most valued nonprofit institutions vanish behind a Byzantine fog of secrecy, out of which arise the magnificent towers of new buildings, and in front of which an occasional limousine is to be observed. No wonder the research scientists feel the constant pressure to produce. A Nobel Prize every ten years, or so, would go a long way toward quieting envious remarks from the liberal arts faculty.

Housed in those ivy towers are three institutions, the teaching hospital, the medical school, and the university, with three boards of trustees, and at least three ruling potentates. At irregular intervals, congressional committees do things to the Budget Reconciliation Act which enrich one of the three components of the institution, or suddenly impoverish another, or both. Integration of the three under one governance sounds plausible until you notice how radically different is the mission of each one. You can take a big building away from one component and rent it back to them, and things like that; but you can't do it without starting whispers about Enron. You can gather up surplus funds from one of them during the decade of the eighties, but you have trouble giving it back twenty years later. Officials at Blue Cross come snooping to see if health insurance premiums are passing through this shell game, ultimately paying salaries in the department of English Literature. Everybody distrusts everybody else, somebody sasses somebody, and everybody gets fired.

Nothing unusual about that. It happens at every medical school.


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