There is much more to the anaesthetists’ role than sending a patient to sleep. Patients need to consider which doctors are right for them – not simply shop around for the cheapest deal. Unfortunately, health funds are not focused on delivering the right information to their members. Rather than provide some sort of critical appraisal, patient feedback on quality or information about a doctors’ practice, the focus of the health funds seems to be centred on the fees doctors charge for their services.
A recent article in the Advertiser Adelaide (23rd August) illustrates just how much doctors are failing to get their position out there. The article (image below) quotes Terry Barnes (the former Abbott advisor behind the $7 GP levy) who stated on Twitter that he was out of pocket $600 (after Medicare and health fund rebates) when his anaesthetist charged four times the Medicare schedule fee.
On my estimate, this suggests the anaesthetist charged a fee in the order of $80/unit. Barnes wants the government and the AMA to cap doctors to the level of the AMA fee which is, in fact, in the order of four times the Medicare schedule fee! Health funds have the resources to market their messages aggressively and, in this case, it leads to patients being misinformed.
In my view, this misinformation sets inappropriate expectations in the market. In the latest edition of the ASA magazine, Dr James Miller noted as follows: The recent ANZCA community survey discussed by Dr Roberts found only 50% of respondents thought that anaesthetists were doctors, irrespective of the fact that 96% reported to have had some experience of general anaesthesia. Of those who were aware that anaesthetists are doctors, only 41% knew we have the same training and qualifications as other specialists. This supports my view that you should take every opportunity you are afforded to educate your patients about you as an anaesthetist and your role in the management of their care.
In conclusion, health funds are able to influence the market and patient perception with aggressive tactics and large marketing budgets. The only way that you can combat that is in your one-on-one interactions with patients. Treat those interactions as an opportunity to inform and educate patients about your role as an anaesthetist and outline the critical tasks you perform in managing their care.
The only way to address the fact that external stakeholders are trying to turn the debate in their favour is for the anaesthetic community to accept responsibility to educate and inform patients.