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Last 50 Editorials

(Click on title to be directed to posting, most recent listed first)

What Will Happen with the Generic Drug Companies’ Lawsuit: Lessons from
   the Tobacco Settlement
The Implications of Increasing Physician Hospital Employment
More Medical Science and Less Advertising
The Need for Improved ICU Severity Scoring
A Labor Day Warning
Keep Your Politics Out of My Practice
The Highest Paid Clerk
The VA Mission Act: Funding to Fail?
What the Supreme Court Ruling on Binding Arbitration May Mean to
Kiss Up, Kick Down in Medicine 
What Does Shulkin’s Firing Mean for the VA? 
Guns, Suicide, COPD and Sleep
The Dangerous Airway: Reframing Airway Management in the Critically Ill 
Linking Performance Incentives to Ethical Practice 
Brenda Fitzgerald, Conflict of Interest and Physician Leadership 
Seven Words You Can Never Say at HHS
Equitable Peer Review and the National Practitioner Data Bank 
   Fake News in Healthcare 
Beware the Obsequious Physician Executive (OPIE) but Embrace Dyad
Disclosures for All 
Saving Lives or Saving Dollars: The Trump Administration Rescinds Plans to
   Require Sleep Apnea Testing in Commercial Transportation Operators
The Unspoken Challenges to the Profession of Medicine
EMR Fines Test Trump Administration’s Opposition to Bureaucracy 
Breaking the Guidelines for Better Care 
Worst Places to Practice Medicine 
Pain Scales and the Opioid Crisis 
In Defense of Eminence-Based Medicine 
Screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea in the Transportation Industry—
   The Time is Now 
Mitigating the “Life-Sucking” Power of the Electronic Health Record 
Has the VA Become a White Elephant? 
The Most Influential People in Healthcare 
Remembering the 100,000 Lives Campaign 
The Evil That Men Do-An Open Letter to President Obama 
Using the EMR for Better Patient Care 
State of the VA
Kaiser Plans to Open "New" Medical School 
CMS Penalizes 758 Hospitals For Safety Incidents 
Honoring Our Nation's Veterans 
Capture Market Share, Raise Prices 
Guns and Sleep 
Is It Time for a National Tort Reform? 
Time for the VA to Clean Up Its Act 
Eliminating Mistakes In Managing Coccidioidomycosis 
A Tale of Two News Reports 
The Hands of a Healer 
The Fabulous Fours! Annual Report from the Editor 
A Veterans Day Editorial: Change at the VA? 
A Failure of Oversight at the VA 
IOM Releases Report on Graduate Medical Education 
Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Beyond the AHI 
Multidisciplinary Discussion (MDD) in Interstitial Lung Disease; Some


For complete editorial listings click here.

The Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care welcomes submission of editorials on journal content or issues relevant to the pulmonary, critical care or sleep medicine.


Entries in physician autonomy (2)


The Highest Paid Clerk

Physicians are the highest paid clerks in healthcare, but we only have ourselves to blame. At one time charts were often unavailable or illegible and x-rays or outside medical records were often missing. How we longed to have searchable records available. Now we have them but digital medicine has come at a cost. For every hour physicians spend with patients nearly two hours are spent with the electronic healthcare record (EHR) (1). Nurses in the hospital spend nearly as much time with the EHR (2). If a picture is worth a thousand words, the drawing by a 7-year-old depicting her visit to the doctor may say it best with the doctor staring at a computer with his back to the patient (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Drawing by a 7-year-old of her visit to the doctor (3).

The EHR has done some very positive things. It has reduced medication errors; it assembles laboratory and imaging information; it allows visualization of X-rays; the notes are always legible; and although introduction of an EHR results in an initial increase in mortality, there appears to be an eventual reduction (3,4). However, EHRs were not built to enhance patient care but to augment billing. Despite the effort that goes into collecting and recording data, much of the data is unseen or ignored (3). Our daily progress notes have become cut-and-paste spam monsters that are mostly irrelevant and nearly impossible to interpret. The diagnoses can be difficult to locate, the documentation for the diagnosis is often incomprehensible, and the plan is unintelligible. Of course, billings have increased but not due to improved care, but because of the electronic gobbledygook that serves as a record. 

Several other recent examples illustrate that doctors are viewed and being used mainly as clerks. I recently, applied to renew my hospital privileges. This involved completing about a 25-page on-line form to including uploaded documentation of all licenses, board certifications, CME hours, a TB skin test and a DTaP vaccination. For this privilege, not only are medical staff dues paid but a $100 fee needs to accompany the application. Pity the poor physician who goes to several hospitals. In our office every piece of paperwork is scanned into the computer and signed by the physician. This includes the insurance forms, notes from co-managing physicians, the prescriptions that I have written and signed, the pulmonary function tests that I have interpreted and signed, the scored Epworth sleepiness scales that the patient has completed and are included in my note, etc.

A recent court decision may further increase the physician clerical load. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a 4-to-3 decision ruled that a physician may not "fulfill through an intermediary the duty to provide sufficient information to obtain a patient's informed consent” (5). What this essentially means is that a physician, presumably the operating surgeon, must obtain an informed consent which usually involves signing a piece of paper. However, signing an informed consent form does not assure informed consent and the form’s main purpose is to protect the hospital or surgical center against litigation by shifting culpability to the surgeon. Now a surgeon must not only inform the patient about the operation but must have a form signed to protect the hospital and discuss every adverse outcome and all alternatives, a clearly impossible task. Will it be long before an unintelligible informed consent is required before prescribing an aspirin?

Many physicians, including myself, have resorted to voice recognition software using a template to generate notes due to increasing documentation requirements. Although this seems to decrease documentation time and increase face-to-face time with the patient, a recent article points out that voice recognition makes mistakes (6). Although there is little doubt that this is true, other documentation methods have their problems such as typographical errors, spelling errors, and omissions in documentation. Hopefully, a hullabaloo will not be made over voice recognition mistakes like was made over copying-and-pasting (7,8). Copy-and-paste errors seem to be mostly trivial and the information they contain is mostly for billing and probably does not need repeating in the medical record in the first place.

Physicians have cowered too long to insurer or hospital interests to avoid being labeled as “disruptive”. Many physicians would be happy to carefully proof every note or spend an hour getting the hospital’s informed consent form signed, but only if adequately compensated. Whining about physician lack of autonomy and increased clerical load either in the doctor’s lounge or in the pages of a medical journal will have no effect. The trend of shifting clerical workload to the healthcare providers will likely continue until either physicians refuse to do these clerical tasks or receive fair compensation for their services.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC


  1. Verghese A. How tech can turn doctors into clerical workers. NY Times. May 16, 2018. Available at: (accessed 7/13/18).
  2. Stokowski LA. Electronic nursing documentation: Charting new territory. Medscape. September 12, 2013. Available at: (accessed 7/13/18).
  3. Toll E. A piece of my mind. The cost of technology. JAMA. 2012 Jun 20;307(23):2497-8.
  4. Lin SC, Jha AK, Adler-Milstein J. Electronic health records associated with lower hospital mortality after systems have time to mature. Health Aff (Millwood). 2018 Jul;37(7):1128-35. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Fernandez Lynch H, Joffe S, Feldman EA. Informed consent and the role of the treating physician. N Engl J Med. 2018 Jun 21;378(25):2433-8. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Zhou L, Blackley SV, Kowalski L, et al. Analysis of errors in dictated clinical documents assisted by speech recognition software and professional transcriptionists.  JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(3):e180530. [CrossRef]
  7. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Electronic Healthcare Provider. December 2015. Available at: (accessed 7/13/18).
  8. The Joint Commission. Preventing copy-and-paste errors in EHRs. QuickSafety. February 2015. Available at: (accessed 7/13/18).

Cite as: Robbins RA. The highest paid clerk. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2018;17(1):32-4. doi: PDF 


Changes in Medicine: the Decline of Physician Autonomy 

Reference as: Robbins RA. Changes in medicine: the decline of physician autonomy. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2011;3:49-51. (Click here for a PDF version)

Thirty years ago when I left fellowship, there were predominantly two career paths, private practice or academics. I had chosen academics by virtue of doing a fellowship at a heavily research-based program, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). However, even at the NIH many of my colleagues eventually ended up in private practice, which was more lucrative and much more common than the academic practice I chose. Now a third path has become more common, practice as a hospital employee. I became a hospital employee over 30 years ago when I became a part-time, and later, full-time physician at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center affiliated with a university. Apparently I was ahead of my time. In an article entitled “Majority of New Physician Jobs Feature Hospital Employment” 56% of physician search assignments by the national physician search firm Merritt Hawkins in 2011 were for hospitals (1). This had increased from 51% in 2010 and 23% in 2006. In contrast, only 2% of the firm's 2011 search assignments featured openings for independent, solo practitioners, down from 17% in 2006. "The era of the independent physician who owns and runs his or her practice is fading," according to Travis Singleton, a senior vice-president at Merritt Hawkins.

The reason that hospitals want to employee physicians is obvious-money. By increasing market share and collecting professional fees, hospitals profit from physician employment. Physicians may be fearful of the cost of setting up a private practice with the increasing uncertainties of reimbursement, making a salaried hospital position attractive. This is especially true for a new physician not wishing to add to the debt incurred during training or seeking less than full-time employment for family or personal reasons (2).

Although quality or efficiency is often touted as a major reason for hospitals to employee physicians, recent research suggests that neither result. Kuo and Goodwin (3) reviewed over 50,000 Medicare admissions and found that hospital length of stay was 0.64 day less and costs $282 lower among patients receiving hospitalist care compared to primary care physician care. However, this reduction in inpatient costs under the care of hospitalists was more than offset by a $332 increase in charges after discharge.  Furthermore, patients cared for by hospitalists were less likely to be discharged to home; more likely to have emergency department visits; more likely to be readmitted to the hospital; less likely to have a follow up visit with their primary care physician; and more likely to be admitted to a nursing facility. As the authors point out this is nothing more than cost shifting, and hospitalists, who are typically hospital employees, may be more susceptible to behaviors that promote cost shifting. Consistent with this concept, O’Malley et al. (4) state that hospital employed physicians increase costs by higher hospital and physician commercial insurance payment rates and hospital pressure on employed physicians to order more expensive care.

Although the disadvantages of hospital employment are several, “Ultimately, the loss of control over their own professional lives is what irks employed doctors the most…” (5). As someone who worked as a hospital employee for the VA for over 30 years, I found an increasing “master-servant relationship” particularly annoying. Decisions were often based on financial or political considerations by nonphysicians or under-qualified clinicians. For example, some have recommended propofol as a standard in conscious sedation (6). It offers a number of advantages including ease of titration and short duration of action. Propofol has been used by our group for years in the ICU. Our group applied for “privileges” to use propofol for bronchoscopy which was endorsed by the pharmacy and therapeutics committee. Yet, the clinical executive board denied the application which our group found puzzling.  I was later told by a quality assurance nurse that the basis of this decision was that propofol is what killed Michael Jackson.  Hopefully medical decision making meets a higher standard than the singular example of what may have happened to a pop star.

Another example is the guidelines from groups like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) that quickly becomes hospital mandates. Many of these guidelines are, at best, weakly evidence based (7). Furthermore, the guidelines are bundled, i.e., several guidelines are grouped together. Bundling makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine which guidelines are effective. Most have probably had little impact on patient outcomes, but at least one proved to be catastrophic. Tight control of blood sugar in the intensive care unit was mandated and monitored by the VA based on IHI recommendations. However, as demonstrated in the NICE-SUGAR study, tight control actually resulted in a 14% increase in patient mortality (8). This increase in mortality would translate to 9503 excess deaths at all VA hospitals between 2002 and 2009 or about 1 death for every 84 patients treated with tight control of glucose. After publication of the NICE-SUGAR study the IHI dropped the issue from its web site and the VA switched to also monitoring hypoglycemia. One might think that a guideline which resulted in a 14% increase in ICU mortality would cause an outcry to punish those responsible, but instead resulted only in a deafening silence.

I am hopeful that we have trained our young physicians to practice for their patients’ benefit, rather than the financial or political well-being of the hospital. Yet, I fear that the financial pressures of beginning practice and protecting one’s reputation and livelihood may be too great a pressure to resist. Until physicians are not supervised by non- or under-trained administrators in a “master-servant” relationship, incidents such as the increase in ICU mortality secondary to tight control of glucose are bound to reoccur.

Richard A. Robbins MD

Editor, Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care


  1. Crane M. Majority of New Physician Jobs Feature Hospital Employment. Medscape 2011. (accessed 8-22-11).
  2. Robbins RA. Changes in medicine: medical school. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2011:3:5-7.
  3. Kuo Y-F, Goodwin JS. Association of hospitalist care with medical utilization after discharge: evidence of cost shift from a cohort study. Ann Intern Med 2011;155:152-9
  4. O'Malley AS, Bond AM, Berenson RA. Rising hospital employment of physicians: better quality, higher costs? Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) 2011. (accessed 8-23-11).
  5. Terry KJ. Six biggest gripes of employed doctors. Medscape Business of Medicine 2011. (accessed 8-22-11).
  6. Eichhorn V, Henzler D, Murphy MF. Standardizing care and monitoring for anesthesia or procedural sedation delivered outside the operating room. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol 2010;23:494-9.
  7. Padrnos L, Bui T, Pattee JJ, Whitmore EJ, Iqbal M, Lee S, Singarajah CU, Robbins RA. Analysis of overall level of evidence behind the Institute of Healthcare Improvement ventilator-associated pneumonia guidelines. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2011;3:40-8.
  8. The NICE-SUGAR Study Investigators. Intensive versus conventional glucose control in critically ill patients. N Engl J Med 2009; 360:1283-97.

The opinions expressed in this editorial are the opinions of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care or the Arizona Thoracic Society.