The Battle for the Souls of American Doctors


by Kent Bottles

First posted on Kent Bottles’ Private Views on 12/19/12

Kent Bottles, MD, Host of Kent Bottles’ Private Views

We physicians like to think that we are really different from other workers. We physicians, perhaps thinking back to that medical school application essay we all wrote, really believe that we went into this career to simply help others. We physicians truly believe that we always put our patients first.

Because we sincerely believe all of the above, we are shocked when someone like Uwe Reinhardt points out that collectively we act just like any other worker in the economy. The classic 1986 letters between the Princeton professor Reinhardt and former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman highlight the tension between how we think of ourselves and how we act.

Relman thinks physicians are special and he asks Reinhardt the following question:

Do you really see no difference between physicians and hospitals on the one hand, and ‘purveyors of other goods and services,’ on the other?

Reinhardt is ready with a long answer that should be read in its entirety. The short answer is that doctors act like any other human beings. A portion of his answer includes the following:

Surely you will agree that it has been one of American medicine’s more hallowed tenets that piece-rate compensation is the sine qua non of high quality medical care. Think about this tenet, We have here a profession that openly professes that its members are unlikely to do their best unless they are rewarded in cold cash for every little ministration rendered their patients. If an economist made that assertion, one might write it off as one more of that profession’s kooky beliefs. But physicians are saying it. (

I have recently written about the inevitable transition from fee for service payment to global, value-based payment systems, and I was surprised when a primary care physician whom I admire tweeted that he thought the end of fee for service would be the end of primary care. (

This tension between the ideal of medicine and the economic reality of how medicine is practiced in the United States is perhaps best summarized by Atul Gawande in his famous New Yorker article about McAllen, Texas:

Here, along the banks of the Rio Grande, in the Square Dance Capital of the World, a medical community has come to treat patients the way subprime-mortgage lenders treated home buyers: as profit centers. (

This morning I was reminded of this battle for the soul of American medicine when I read two articles in the New York Times. On the front page an article titled “Quiet Doctor, Lavish Insider: A Parallel Life” describes how a well-respected neurologist at the University of Michigan capped off his successful academic career by cooperating with federal prosecutors to avoid charges in a Wall Street insider stock trading scandal.

The riddle for Dr. Gilman’s longtime friends and colleagues is why a nationally respected neurologist was pulled into the high-rolling life of a consultant to financiers and how he, by his own admission, crossed the line into criminal behavior. (

The other article in the Times published on the same day was the obituary of Dr. William F. House who invented the cochlear implant.

Neither the institute nor Dr. House made any money on the implant. He never sought a patent on any of his inventions, he said, because he did not want to restrict other researchers. A nephew, Dr. John House, the current president of the House institute, said his uncle had made the deal to license it to the 3M Company not for profit but simply to get it built by a reputable manufacturer. Reflecting on his business decisions in his memoir, Dr. House acknowledged, ‘I might be a little richer today.’ (

A major challenge for 21st century American medicine is to cultivate the culture epitomized by Dr. House and avoid the mistakes of Dr. Gilman.


  1. I read the same articles and agree with your conclusion that doctors do have a huge challenge to avoid the pitfalls of exploiting patients for profit while needing to be remunerated for professional services rendered. My perspective is as a patient advocate. Doctors benefit greatly in our culture and are venerated. I have also seen how some behave in an entitled manner and are granted posh courtesies and judicial variances that are not warranted when harmed patients are denied their civil rights. Healthcare will be disrupted by technological change and demands of the national economy. Let us take care of one another and keep talking!

  2. Kent:
    Paul Starr, in his book, “The Social Transformation of American Medicine” and me in my book, “Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age” provide ample evidence that doctors act like any other human — just like Uwe says. My favorite examples come from that indisputable source, the American Medical Association. You think “the good old days” were different? In the mid-1950s, the AMA in an official report chided doctors from worrying if they earned as much as plumbers. By the late 1960s, when Medicare kicked in, the AMA worried that the aggressive billing was going to kill the golden goose. (That took a while.) In the 1980s, docs talked openly about “target incomes.” Etc.
    Clergy, like doctors, are a holy profession, but, they, too, act like other people. So with doctors.