A Plague of Bureaucrats - Now 10 Per Physician in US Health Care

There seems to be a reasonable argument that the US health care system is more dependent on the private sector, and in particular the for-profit private sector, than systems in other developed countries.  Advocates of private, for-profit health care often tout the private sector as more efficient and less bureaucratic than government.  

However, a post by Robert Kocher in the Harvard Business Review blog, of all places, noted that US health care is increasingly inflicted by a proliferation - perhaps a plague - of bureaucrats.

Dr Kocher looked at employment of physicians, other health care professionals and clinical workers, and bureaucrats in a more recent time frame, 1990-2012.  The key findings were:

 Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the American Medical Association, my colleagues and I found that from 1990 to 2012, the number of workers in the U.S. health system grew by nearly 75%. Nearly 95% of this growth was in non-doctor workers, and the ratio of doctors to non-doctor workers shifted from 1:14 to 1:16.


 Today, for every doctor, only 6 of the 16 non-doctor workers have clinical roles, including registered nurses, allied health professionals, aides, care coordinators, and medical assistants. Surprisingly, 10 of the 16 non-doctor workers are purely administrative and management staff, receptionists and information clerks, and office clerks. 

So, in summary, for every doctor, there are 6 clinical workers (nurses, aides, etc) and 10 bureaucrats (including managers).

Note that this data appears compatible with 1983-2000 employment data we summarized in 2005. During that period, the ranks of health care managers grew much faster than the ranks of physicians or nurses.  The growth rates from 1983 to 2000 were 1.39x (39%) for physicians, 1.54x (54%) for nurses, and a whopping 8.26x (726%) for managers.

Another way to look at it is, in 1983 there was 1 manager for every 5.7 physicians and every 15.1 nurses. In 2000, there was 1 manager for every 0.96 physicians and every 2.9 nurses. Again, by 2000, the number of health care managers exceeded the number of physicians. There were more managers than any other species of health care worker other than nurses.

So, by 2000, there was one manager per doctor.  By 2012, there were 10 bureaucrats, including managers, per doctor. 

We have discussed the increasing power of managers, administrators and executives over health care.  Management gurus, such as Alain Enthoven, had advocated breaking the power of the supposed "physicians' guild" to reduce health care costs, and replacing physician leaders with managers (look here).  We have discussed the growing role of generic managers, that is leaders trained only to manage, but not experienced in , and often not sympathetic to the values of health care.  Now there is increasing evidence that managers and bureaucrats are increasingly numerous in health care, the former somewhat and the latter greatly out-numbering physicians.

We cannot scientifically prove that this plague of bureaucrats is responsible for US health care's mediocre quality and access, despite higher costs per capita than in any other developed country.  However, it does appear to be a reasonable hypothesis that increasing the relative numbers of health care professionals versus bureaucrats might produce at least more health care per dollar, if not also better health care per dollar.   

This suggests that true health care reform requires decreasing the influence of generic management.  Health care leaders ought to be those with some knowledge of health care and some sympathy for its values. Such health care leadership might be less concerned with increasing bureaucracy, and more concerned with more and better actual care of actual patients.  (But do not expect such reforms to be popular with the very well-paid generic managers who now run health care, and hence do not expect such reforms to be easy to implement.)
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