From a doctor's point of view: making billing better, for better care
James E. Bailey, M.D., M.P.H., is a practicing internal medicine physician, director of the Healthy Memphis Data Center and a professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. In this post, he riffs on a topic covered by a recent RWJF-supported study, about how streamlining billing procedures will increase efficiency and help improve the quality and cost of health care.
Between the recession and new health reform law, Americans have been thinking a lot about what health care costs. I’ve heard many stories of patients and their families suffering because of the cost of getting care. I also know many primary care doctors and hospitals that do their best to provide everyone the care they need most are finding it difficult to keep their doors open. Again and again, I’ve seen how the health care people receive is often of poor quality, despite its high, and rising, cost. Sadly, Americans end up getting expensive, sometimes even dangerous procedures they don’t need while their most essential health care needs are overlooked.
The health reform debate tended to focus on big, divisive issues—and rightly so. Real change in our health care system will require hard choices to be made by everyone. But there is another big issue—not quite as divisive but nonetheless worth our attention—which is the system’s misuse of time. Any physician can speak of large amounts of time—and frustration—spent dealing with administrative issues such as billing. As a doctor, I want most to spend my time with my patients. And so every minute I spend on administrative tasks is one less minute I have for seeing patients. And instead of an efficient system that empowers doctors to best do their work, we’ve created a time hog that dictates the priorities of our practices, inhibiting us from doing what we are called to do as physicians—provide care for those who need it.
This is why reform efforts must address issues like the simplification of billing and paperwork. A new study from RWJF's Changes in Health Care Financing and Organization initiative, “Saving Billion of Dollars—And Physicians’ Time—By Streamlining Billing Practices” suggests that it is possible to streamline the billing process, increase the quality of care and eliminate some unnecessary costs. The study examines the U.S. system of billing third-party payers for health care services, arguing that the system of third-party payment is excessively cumbersome, complicated and costly. We spend about twice as much on the billing bureaucracy in America than in any other country in the world. While it is unlikely that we will be able to eliminate third-party middlemen from the system any time in the near future, there is much that can be done now.