They let us peek into the sausage factory last week.

Nominally, the lecture was about RVUs1. An accountant type in a pinstripe suit explained why the government came up with the concept and how more RVUs translate to mo’ money for the hospital. Then he showed us a table. This is how much RVUs an average ophthalmologist makes in an hour. Here is an orthopedic surgeon. See here at the bottom? That’s an internist. This is how much you’re worth to us, scum2.

Then there was a chart. This is the last fiscal year. This solid line here are monthly RVUs for an average hospitalist. The dotted line is for a single physician in the practice. See how it’s always above the solid line? That’s good. We love that person.

We had medical students and interns just three months into training listen to this. It was blood-curdling.

Not because the hospital organized the lecture, mind you. It is a very good thing they did it, and it is good for doctors in training to realize as early as possible in what kind of a healtcare system they are expected to work. What is frightening is that there needs to be an entity, let’s call it administration, which views the hospital as a production plant and physicians as line workers who need to maximize outputs, optimize efficiencies and do other newspeak claptrap.

Administration usually lies—appropriately—on the ground floor, far removed from that other sausage factory of actual patient care. It looks at pie charts and histograms and RVU tables and keeps coming up with new and exciting ways to increase production while wondering why those bumbling doctors at the bottom of the list can’t do whatever the top performing docs are doing to keep the hospital in the black.

It’s modern medicine, it’s complex, it’s expensive, it requires that level of organization and detachment—you might be tempted to say. Yes, you could indeed say that, if not for the lonely example of every other country in the developed world which does it differently than the US.

But never mind that. With all the shenanigans the Congress has been up to this week, that end of the equation is unlikely to change. What administrators should do—and I understand the banality of the following advice—is see real physicians interacting with real patients for at least and hour each week. Interns being bombarded by page after page—from critical to comical—while trying to figure out a 15-minute window to eat, get coffee and use the restroom4. Residents finishing a 24+ hour ICU shift that started with three codes and ended with a difficult end-of-life care discussion, with central lines placements and intern supervision—but no sleep—sprinkled in between. Attendings getting yelled at while trying to explain to family members why they need to pay for the medications out of pocket or bring their own3.

One hour. Each week. Mandatory. To put things in perspective.


  1. Relative Value Units

  2. Not his actual words. Actually, he sounded very apologetic when explaining it. Still stung though. 

  3. Hello, observation status. 

  4. At the same time? — a thought will come to them, to be quickly dismissed.