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US Doctors: Overpaid and Underperforming

American doctors are paid much more than doctors in other countries, without US patients seeing much return on their money. So argues Slate writer Matthew Yglesias in a recent piece riffing off of last week’s explosive Time article on the price gouging of US Hospitals:

The last time the OECD looked at this (PDF), they found that, adjusted for local purchasing power, America has the highest-paid general practitioners in the world. And our specialists make more than specialists in every other country except the Netherlands. What’s even more striking, as the Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff observed last week, these highly paid doctors don’t buy us more doctors’ visits. Canada has about 25 percent more doctors’ consultations per capita than we do, and the average rich country has 50 percent more.

Yglesias argues that we could compensate would-be doctors for lower salaries by helping finance their medical school tuition and pushing through malpractice reform. And if lower salaries turn people away from the MD, we could keep the number of caregivers steady by getting rid of silly restrictions, like ones that forbid nurse practitioners from offering primary care without a doctor present.

What Yglesias misses is the role technology will play in radically reducing doctors’ role in our future health care system. New innovations are already laying the groundwork for industry changes that will save us lots of money on doctors’ salaries in the long term. Smartphones will allow individuals to self-diagnose. At-home diagnostic computers in the Watson mold will replace doctors’ consultations. And virtual visits with nurse practitioners will make routine primary care fast and efficient.

We’ll still need doctors to perform operations and treat complicated illnesses, but overall, technology will empower people to take more and more control over their own health care. A key policy goal during this transition is preventing the AMA and other doctors advocacy groups from using political tools to protect doctors’ privileged place by stopping technological progress in its tracks. If we can do that, in a few decades our health care will be better, cheaper, and more efficient than we can now imagine.

[Image of Doctor’s Hands in Computer from Shutterstock]

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