Opinion: Crisis shows physicians are called to care for and serve people

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"I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in, a position to relieve the suffering of others." Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895); the first Black female physician in the United States.

In a time of crisis, epidemic or pandemic, “who ya gonna call?”: An athlete? A booty-shaking singer? Television or movie stars? Yes, entertainers’ work provides fun to humans. They make us laugh, or can foster team pride. But are they heroes? Do they save lives?

Might you call health insurance companies’ CEOs — many of them, simply business administrators and not physicians?

In the scheme of life, what work — what professions — are really essential to health and life?

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, concerts and sporting events are postponed or canceled. Even the International Olympic Committee canceled the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The Canadian Olympic team officers wrote, it’s “about more than a performance, a record, or a medal. It’s about being part of something bigger.” Indeed.

Heroes don’t wear capes. They don’t play with balls, nor shake their half-dressed derrieres on stage. Heroes are those who show up; who sacrifice. Heroes save lives.

One good thing that has resulted from the life-altering coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is that, once again, the world society sees the dutiful, daily demonstration of dedication, intelligence, self-sacrifice, and service to mankind done by physicians, nurses, therapists, medical technicians, researchers, transporters, custodians, data entry clerks, first responders, and all workers who care for and engage with patients.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895) was the first Black female physician in the United States. She graduated in 1864 (during the Civil War) from what is now Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Crumpler wrote, “I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to be in, a position to relieve the suffering of others.”

Pandemic or not, Dr. Crumpler’s words ring eternally true; but especially at such a time as this.

Relieving the suffering of others is what physicians do every day of every year: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year after year. Every single moment somewhere, physicians provide skilled medical care, surgery and services to treat cancers, ruptured aneurysms, fractures, diabetic comas, seizures, brain tumors, strokes, hemorrhage and more. To heal others, physicians lead the teams of highly skilled, valuable nurses and ancillary staff.

Yet for the past 30 years, insurance companies have minimized physicians. Instead of calling us physicians, they say “providers.” “Dr.” or “M.D.” is often absent from drop-down menus.

Physicians’ autonomy has been stripped, as practitioners are forced to jump through hoops to “get approval” to provide the care and treatment the doctor feels a patient needs. Instead, insurers dictate what test can be ordered; what medications can be prescribed, and for what procedures they will, or will not, pay.

Physicians often have to fight to get fairly compensated for life-saving work, while insurance company CEOs bank millions of dollars each year. Yet when those very CEOs need medical care, whom do they call?

By definition, insurance companies are “financial institutions that sell insurance.” They are not clinicians. They cannot and should not be the determinants of health care delivery. They should not decide which doctor a patient can see, nor what treatment options we may or may not discuss with our patients. They should not dictate patient management, nor determine need for surgical procedures or length of hospital stay. They should be national claim-processors only.

It’s my long-held position that all insurance physician “networks,” “panels” or “plans” should be completely abolished. These plans deny doctors our right to free enterprise — to see/treat any patient seeking our services. They also deny patients the right to the doctor of their true choice, restricting choice to one on their “plan.” There should be an open market.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies and insurance companies have waived certain regulatory requirements, and now allow physicians to just do what they deem necessary to care for patients. Isn’t that how it should be every day, across the board: withdraw non-physicians from the determination of patient care?

Another unexpected development of this urgent COVID crisis is that many young physician trainees — interns, residents, and newly-minted attendings — are forced into a new awakening. They see that being a physician is not a job of “shifts,” but one of full commitment, regardless of the hour. It requires high-intensity, perpetual focus, fortitude and follow-through. That extra push; that extra concern, and going the extra mile. Why do physicians do such a job? It’s a calling; it’s in our heart.

As physician shortages persist nationwide, I hope that intelligent youth worldwide will consider a career path beyond music or sport; one that serves a greater need: become noble medical professionals and researchers who work to serve, and save, mankind. You are needed now and forever.

Dr. Melody T. McCloud, founder and medical director of Atlanta Women’s Health Care, is an obstetrician-gynecologist, author and media consultant affiliated with Emory University Hospital Midtown. @DrMelodyMcCloud.