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|Regina E. Herzlinger|
Local attitudes always somewhat persist among migrants from home. What's distinctive about the Philadelphia diaspora is how unconscious most of them are about still carrying the hometown mark. Philadelphia leaves a prominent birthmark, but it's sort of back between your shoulder blades and you forget it's there. What occasions this observation is a Christmas call from a prominent California surgeon who was once my roommate, back in the days when residents were actually resident in the hospital. More than fifty years ago Bill Doane also served as best man at my wedding. Our conversation turned to clots in the lung, and he related a story. He had once fixed a hernia for a 22-year old girl in the days when it was customary to keep hernia cases in bed for a while. Getting out of bed for the first time, she coughed and turned blue, suddenly on the edge of death. Taken back to the operating room, her chest was opened, and Bill removed a clot which was essentially a cast of the blood vessels of one entire lung. As surgeons like to say, she then did very well.
One doctor can tell such a story to another doctor in four sentences, while lay people who overhear it miss the whole point. The fact is, not one surgeon in ten thousand today could carry this off. Nowadays we train thoracic surgeons to open the lungs; they never repair hernias. Conversely, we train hernia surgeons to fix a dozen hernias daily through a little telescope; they never open a patient's chest. So it is hard to imagine many contemporary surgeons who could recognize this disastrous complication of hernia repair, then fix it themselves in time to rescue the patient. Although this disheartening decline into repetitive super specialties has been forty years in the making, it has been recently popularized with the general public by Regina E. Herzlinger, a Harvard business professor. Writing books and speaking to businessmen groups, she has popularized the proposal to outsource the general hospital into what she calls "focused factories." She rightly characterizes the medical profession as reluctant. She's a nice person, and undoubtedly sincerely believes focused factories will save money, improve quality. But we must not let this idea take hold.
Specialty hospitals have actually been given more than a fair trial. About a hundred years ago, the landscape was peppered with casualty hospitals, receiving hospitals, stomach hospitals, skin and cancer hospitals, lying-in hospitals, contagious disease hospitals, and a dozen other medical specialty boutiques. With a few notable exceptions, they all failed for the same reason. Sooner or later they found they could not adequately service their specialty without the backup of a full hospital service. Children's hospitals do thrive, but they have patients who are generally of the wrong physical size to fit adult hospital facilities and equipment. There are plenty of things to regret about general hospitals' design, but the inescapable fact is they all must have a very wide range of services to perform any mission, no matter how discrete. It would be still better if the doctors had an equally wide range of skills in their own heads, but the avalanche of innovation and lawsuits has forced sub-specialization, compartmentalizing, and narrowness of viewpoint. Circumstances have forced the profession to hunker down, but that trend must be resisted, not celebrated.
The instant and successful repair of pulmonary embolism make a dramatic illustration, but the reasons for broad medical training are more extensive than that. In the first place, it is much cheaper to use the generalist office than to bounce people to a gastroenterologist for heartburn, a psychiatrist for anxiety, and a dermatologist for pimples. The American employer community is desperate for a way to reduce its burden of employee health costs, and flocks back to their nurturing business schools for advice. They would do better to seek repeal of the tax dodges which tempted them into their present muddle, of course. But in any event, they must be persuaded to recall the disaster of managed care and at least, avoid meddling in hospital design.
That's the cost issue, where specialization surely raises costs. Constant repetition of the same procedure seems superior to first-time fumbling, although it is questionable how long it takes a well-trained surgeon to pick up a new procedure and do it well. But for this system to work, the referring physicians need to be more skillful, not less, in choosing a good one to refer to. There's just nothing like the experience of working for a few weeks in the specialty as a rotating intern, to tell you what to look for and what to avoid. If every doctor in a hospital is making a dozen internal referrals a day, the cumulative effect on the quality of the whole institution is dramatic -- when they have had sufficient past involvement in the specialties to which they now only refer patients. Some specialists will become popular and rich; others will sulk around unnoticed for a while, then go elsewhere. This process, of course, occurs everywhere; what's institutionally distinct is the culture underlying the standards for preferences.
We'll talk later about the Doane brothers of Bucks County, who were judged to be too handsome to hang. Right now, the point of this story can be summarized by the old Pennsylvania Hospital adage, that you must first be a good doctor before you can be a good specialist. Not only was the Pennsylvania Hospital the first in the nation. For sixty years it was the only hospital in the nation, and for decades after that, it was the only hospital in Pennsylvania. In medical history circles, it is said that the history of American medicine, is the history of the Pennsylvania Hospital.
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2021