A Doctor in the House

By Karen Rosen, ATLANTA TREND™ 

Congressional colleagues often stop Rep. Tom Price to ask his opinion on health care. They’re not just interested because Price chairs the Republican Study Committee and introduced the “Empowering Patients First Act,” which focuses on providing access to affordable health care in the United States.

They ask because he’s also the only orthopedic surgeon among 14 medical doctors in the House of Representatives.

“People just have aches and pains, so I get asked a lot of questions,” Price says. “We either take care of it or try to steer them in the right direction.”

Price has been trying to steer people in the right direction politically, too. He was elected to Congress to represent the Sixth District of Georgia in November 2004 and has been re-elected twice.

Before entering politics, Price followed a family tradition in becoming a doctor, just like his father and grandfather. “When I realized that I couldn’t be a shortstop for a professional baseball team, there were very few other options,” he jokes.

A sense of service had been instilled in Price growing up, and the medical profession was a logical path. His first job was as an EKG tech in his local hospital while he was in high school. He then attended the University of Michigan on an accelerated program in which he received his undergraduate and MD degrees in six years. “That kind of satisfied my Type A surgeon’s personality to get through and get done,” he says.

Price originally planned to become an internist because its three-year residency was the shortest amount of training time after medical school. He changed his mind after a clinical rotation in which he saw people with chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes.

“Although it was challenging and stimulating, it wasn’t serving that more immediate gratification that I needed to be able to help folks,” he says.

Price’s next rotation was general surgery. He liked seeing patients with defined problems that could be figured out and fixed. With an orthopedic surgery rotation, Price found his calling. A professor suggested a residency at Grady Hospital, which was known for its trauma center, and Price moved to Atlanta.

Entering the Political Arena

He went into private practice in 1984 and established an orthopedic clinic. In the mid-1980s, Price says, Georgia had a malpractice crisis in which rates were skyrocketing and doctors were leaving their practices. “The legislature hadn’t done anything at all and I got involved in the state medical society,” he says.

Price went to the state capital and talked to legislators. “I was struck by the lack of knowledge from an experiential base that the legislators had as it related to medicine,” he says. “So that enticed me to get more involved in the political process in trying to get good people elected to office, people that were at least open-minded about health care issues.”

Price was asked to run for the state senate in 1996 and won, serving four terms -- three in the minority and one in the majority. He became the first Republican majority leader in the history of the state after the 2002 election.

For the first three years of his state senate career, Price continued to be very productive in his medical practice. When he became part of the leadership, his new role demanded more of his time. He returned to Emory’s School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor and was Medical Director of the Orthopedic Clinic at Grady, teaching resident doctors in training.

When Johnny Isakson decided to run for the U.S. Senate, Price ran for his Congressional seat.

In Washington, his priorities include reforming the tax system, strengthening health care and education, keeping American families safe, ensuring enforcement of immigration laws, promoting a 21st century energy plan, and finding transportation solutions for Atlanta's residents and commuters.

Price serves on the Financial Services Committee as well as the Committee on Education and Labor, in which he is the Ranking Republican Member on the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee.

As Business Goes, So Goes the Nation

Price said he was interested in the Financial Services Committee because the Sixth District has been Georgia’s prime business district for more than 20 years.

“I wanted to be able to continue that legacy,” he says. “The Sixth District has more businesses within it than any other district in Georgia. I’m a firm believer that as business goes, so goes the nation. And business policy – financial policy – is important to be able to have success for individuals all across the land.”

He’s interested in issues concerning monetary policy and capital markets, as well as the technology side.

The Committee on Education and Labor attracted Price because it is one of the three committees that have some jurisdiction over health care issues.

Price is an outspoken advocate for patient-centered health care reform. He believes in the six principles of accessibility, affordability, quality, responsiveness, innovation and choices.

Use of Technology in Health Care

Price says there are many things the U.S. could be doing from a technological aspect to improve the quality, delivery and accessibility of heath care in this country. In the health care debate, he says health information technology has always been off on the side. Price has tried to push it front and center because he believes the capabilities of technology are not being utilized the way they could – or should -- be.

Price says only 4 percent of U.S. physicians have the capability to do an electronic medical record, “which is abysmal.” Instead, most doctors use handwritten charts and notes.

So what’s standing in the way of electronic records? Price says it’s a combination of 1) education, 2) it’s easier just to scribble notes in the margin, and 3) public policy that doesn’t reward best practices that push the envelope in the way of technology.

Price says other sectors of society are rewarded for being more efficient or effective. He has been trying to push incentives for the institution of electronic medical records and advancements in health information technology. Those incentives would be tax credits and financial rewards, such as accelerating the depreciation on the purchase of health information technology or an electronic medical records system.

Price says the federal government is seen as actually impeding the institution of technology.

“Billing is a classic example,” he says. “There are over 1,200 individual health insurance forms across the nation, so when you walk into a doctor’s office, they don’t know which form they’re going to have to use and oftentimes it’s confounding and difficult for them to even figure out which one it is. That makes it all the more difficult for them to gain efficiencies.”

Price believes the government shouldn’t become too involved, but should step in to require a single platform for insurance billing.

He blames a lack of leadership.

Patient History on a Card

Price also says that patient history should be available on a card instead of the patient having to fill out forms on every visit to a new doctor’s office. The card can be encrypted against unauthorized use.

It’s not that doctors are territorial, Price says, “There’s no incentive for them and nobody’s setting the rules. That’s where government can play a role. The government can set the rules of a technological platform so that health providers across this nation use the same platform. It’s like using the same interstate highway. There isn’t any reason that we ought not to be doing that. The only reason is a lack of leadership and lack of recognition that that’s necessary.”

He says he’s been “hammering on it” since he arrived in Washington to try to make it happen. “And once it happens, you know what all of us will say? Boy, I wonder why we didn’t have that any sooner.”

Price says another roadblock is that a lot of people don’t trust the levels of technology in health care because they fear future employers or other parties will be able to access their personal records. With genetic testing that can forecast a future chronic disease, Price says these questions need to be addressed.

“I think it’s important to respect people’s privacy in the area of heath care,” Price says, “but we make it so difficult to take care of people.”

Leading by Example

Price discovered that leadership must be approached differently when moving from the medical profession to the political arena.

“In health care, most everybody is working for the same goal,” he says. “Especially in a surgical mentality or practice, if you can lay out for folks the logical way that you get to the recommendation that you’re making, then most folks say, ‘Yeah that sounds great. Let’s go.’ The political arena is completely different because half the people are out to try to make certain that you fail, and the other half you’re not certain about where they are most of the time. So it’s not everybody pulling in the same direction.”

Price decided that the best way to lead in Congress is by example. “We try to do the right thing at the right time with the right folks for the right reasons,” he says. “And we try to make that process as visible as possible, so it’s not any mystery about what’s happened.”

Secrets to Success

1) “Find something that you love and can attack with passion. Work harder than anybody else. Everybody has fundamental principles and you just have to be true to those principles. If you do those things, you can’t help but succeed.”

2) “When you come to a crossroads, if you take the path that’s more difficult as opposed to the easiest one that probably gets you to a better spot. You ought to always be challenging yourself. You have to step out of the comfort zone.”

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga) was elected to Congress in 2004 and is chairman of the Republican Study Committee. ATLANTA TREND™ expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Rep. Price for sharing his thoughts with us. 

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