Monday, February 29, 2016
Earlier this morning I learned that "Spotlight" won the "Best Picture" award at the Academy Awards, much to the disappointment of the bear attack fans. But as one who has dipped his toe into the art of investigative journalism for the past three years as an amateur, I found the appreciation of the film's message reassuring in today's click-through culture. Being an investigative journalist is not only difficult, but also frightening at times, both professionally and personally. As the movie nicely documents, the revelations of corruption can shake closely-held narratives of decency and trust so critical to important societal institutions. The movie also nicely portrays how difficult it is to fact-check, obtain evidence, and clearly document the story to both gain credibility and affect change. Unfortunately, classic investigative journalism has fallen victim to increasingly limited funding and a world with a shorter and shorter information attention span.
I fear the story of the financial cover-up at the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) is quickly falling victim to similar pressures. With the exception of one veteran news reporter at Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald (see here, here, here, and here), few journalists have had the interest, patience, or fortitude to expose the truth of the multi-million dollar US physician specialty Board certification racket. Perhaps, like the thought of priests caught molesting children, the thought a non-practicing physician cartel extorting high fees from their colleagues for their personal and political gain is too uncomfortable to accept. Perhaps it is too hard for patients to believe that board re-certification is not about assuring their safety, but rather for little more than money and power. But for working U.S. physicians who are still strong-armed into paying into the ABMS cartel every ten years just so they can continue to do the job they love, this coercion is all too real.
Last October, I had hoped this story would be different. I was interviewed for over an hour and a half by a reporter from CNBC at my hospital who was investigating the ABMS board certification monopoly. I was told she also interviewed Richard Baron, MD of the ABIM and Lois Nora, MD, JD, of the American Board of Medical Specialties. I spent over an hour in the interview, had a cameraman shoot shots in of my office with its board certificates, and introduced the reporter to one of my patients (with permission given my the patient first) under the watchful eye of my hospital's PR department. "Finally!" I thought.
But the story never aired. I called and inquired. It was an on again, off again affair, buffeted by more compelling stories of the day, I was told. Then, "we've decided to go forward." But now months later, still nothing.
I believe that freedom of the press and careful investigative journalism fills an important role in our society. I still believe the day will come when the truth about the ABIM's actions will be told and thoroughly investigated to end the injustice and waste from the ABMS Board Certification monopoly. Let's hope last night's victory of "Spotlight" as "Best Picture" at the Academy Awards can rekindle main stream media's appreciation for the importance of responsible reporting unencumbered by political and financial pressures.
After all, this isn't Hollywood that we are dealing with, this is real life, real doctors, and real patient care - even yours.