The big news this week has been that the ACCC is on the prowl again. Medical work practices are not new ground here - the ACCC has previously stoushed with the RACS over surgical training, as well as Queensland obstetricians and more recently Adelaide heart surgeons (my previous posts ACCC Strikes Again and Bleeding Hearts in Private Hospitals). In fact the ACCC has so much interest in the medical industry that it provides an Info Kit for doctors.
The new case now concerns medical accreditation practices at St Vincent's Private Hospital in Sydney, in particular, the practice of limiting appointment of new anaesthetists to those who already hold appointments at the nearby St Vinnie's Public hospital.
In general, most private hospitals have Medical Accreditation Committees that review the qualifications of any medical staff that wish to work at that hospital. The majority of private hospitals are quite keen to have as many doctors on their books as possible and to make the accreditation or credentialling process as simple as possible, because generally more doctors means more patients (and more business).
In the case of anaesthetists, they generally provide a service at the request of a surgeon. With the exception of staff anaesthetists who are paid directly by a private hospital to be available full or part time for urgent or emergency cases, the majority of private anaesthetists are paid fee-for-service by the patient or their insurance fund. Patients generally choose their surgeons but not their anaesthetists, and therefore the surgeon-anaesthetist team usually comes as a single package.
A surgeon will choose to work with a specific anaesthetist in the private setting because they are competent, they work well with the surgeon and his team (often having worked together for years), and they are available to do a particular set of cases at a particular time. Usually if a surgeon moves to another private hospital the anaesthetist will follow, rather than the other way round. Therefore it makes sense that if a private hospital wants to attract a new surgeon to bring work over that they encourage simple, rapid accreditation by the associated anaesthetists.
In contrast, in a public hospital the surgeon has no say who their anaesthetist will be. It could be a junior registrar, or a seasoned consultant. It could be someone they have never met or worked with before. We have to trust that somebody, somewhere (usually the public hospital's appointments committee), has decided that this anaesthetist is up to the job. In most cases, there are no problems as many aspects of anaesthetics are commonplace and transferable. Having a pool of staff anaesthetists makes it easier to roster for emergency cover, or to squeeze as much work as possible from a smaller group of staff - essential in any cash-strapped public hospital - at the cost of breaking up the regular surgeon-anaesthetist team. Obviously for more complex operations there will be more in-depth decision making and efforts to pair experienced and familiar surgeons and anaesthetists (as well as other theatre staff) together.
So what is going wrong here at St V's? Well, to the frustration of the hospital management and the surgeons, an arbitrary rule has been applied to limit the accreditation of new anaesthetists. This means that otherwise qualified and capable anaesthetists are unable to work at that hospital and surgeons who go to that hospital must choose from the anaesthetists who already work there. It is effectively a closed shop and keeps those anaesthetists who already have appointments busy with private work, and potentially allows them to raise their fees above what might be market rates at a hospital with a more liberal accreditation process.
Unfortunately it means that surgeons are forced to work with anaesthetists that they may not wish to work with, as well as discouraging them from bringing work to that hospital, much to the disappointment of hospital management.
Sadly, this is not the only private hospital in Australia that engages in this type of activity. Sometimes it is instigated by the medical staff, sometimes it is instigated by management as a business decision (usually if they employ the anaesthetists directly). Sometimes the ACCC gets it wrong, but by my reading this is one that they have got right and things clearly have to change.