Background: Debate continues in Israel as to whether to allow patients in public hospitals to choose their physician in return for an additional, out-of-pocket payment. One argument against this arrangement is that the most senior physicians will devote most of their time to private patients and not be sufficiently available to public patients with complex cases.
Objectives: To analyze the patterns of surgical seniority in Jerusalem hospitals from a number of perspectives, including the extent to which: a) opting for private care increases the likelihood of being treated by a very senior surgeon; b) public patients undergoing complex operations are being treated by very senior surgeons, c) the most senior surgeons allocate a significant portion of their time to private patients.
Methods: Demographic and clinical data were retrieved from the operating room records of three of the public hospitals in Jerusalem for all 38,840 operations performed in 2001. Of them, roughly 6000 operations (16%) were performed privately. Operations were classified as "most complex," "moderately complex" and "least complex" by averaging the independent ratings of eight medical and surgical experts. The surgeon's seniority was graded as "tenured" (tenured board-certified specialists, including department heads), "senior" (non-tenured board-certified specialists), and "residents." For each operation, we considered the seniority of the lead surgeon and of the most senior surgeon on the surgical team.
Results: The lead surgeon was of tenured rank in 99% of the most complex private cases and 74% of the most complex public cases, in 93% of the moderately complex private and 35% of the moderately complex public cases, and in 92% of the least complex private and 32% of the least complex public cases. The surgical team included a tenured physician in 97%, 66%, and 53% of the most complex, moderately complex, and least complex public operations, respectively. In both private and public cases, a board-certified (tenured or senior) specialist was a member of the surgical team for almost all of the most complex and moderately complex operations. On average, over half of the operations in which the lead surgeon was a department head were performed on public patients. Among tenured surgeons, those who spent more hours than their colleagues leading private operations also tended, on average, to spend more hours leading public operations.
Conclusions: Private patients have an advantage over public patients in terms of the seniority of the lead surgeon. However, there is also substantial involvement of very senior surgeons in the treatment of public patients, particularly in those cases that are most complex.