A man was attending a seminar and at the end of the day he went into his hotel’s bar to relax with a drink. He sat down, placed his order and pulled out his notes from several of the sessions that he thought were most helpful. As he sat there reviewing these a very attractive young lady sat down at the bar several seats away from him.
He couldn’t help notice her as she was truly stunning, very well-dressed and seemed to have an outgoing personality. Much as he tried to keep his mind on the seminar material he found her too distracting. So he put away his paperwork and moved to take a seat next to her, asking her if she minded if he joined her.
“Not at all,” she said.
So they introduced themselves and began chatting. This young lady was not only bright but she was a brilliant conversationalist and the man realized how much he enjoyed her company and how much he desired her beauty.
After he had purchased several rounds for both of them he finally got up the pluck to ask her the question that was foremost on his mind.
“I hope you won’t be offended,” he said, “But if I were to offer you ten thousand dollars would you sleep with me?”
He waited for her reaction, half expecting to have her throw her drink in his face. But instead, she paused and said, “Why, yes I would.”
“Well, would you sleep with me if I only offered you twenty dollars?”
The young woman looked very offended and said, “What kind of a girl do you think I am?”
The man replied, “Well, we’ve already established that. Now we’re just negotiating the price.”
Although the intensity of conversation on the subject of Wall Street and banking abuses has died down in recent weeks, there are many of us who feel that financiers who make huge salaries are being overpaid and are taking risks that threaten the collapse of our financial system. Perhaps there is some truth to those statements.
As our story illustrates, with few exceptions, everyone has a price. And when the prize is the potential of earning billions of dollars, there is no question that even those of us of the highest morality might find the temptation too great to resist. In part that explains the demise of Lehman Brothers and MF Global – among many who have fallen by the wayside.
Although I in no way mean to serve as an apologist for the business of banking, I would say, in their defense, that making money is the sole objective of their business. But if they do that in an irresponsible way that threatens the well-being and security of the rest of us, it is not only our right but our duty to object.
Speaking of finance, there is another industry which is playing its part in contributing to our outstanding and rising deficits which also threaten our well-being. That is the business of healthcare.
Now I realize that most of us have a view of our doctors as trained specialists who have spent years learning their craft. We see them as being charitable good-doers who want nothing more than to see all of us whole and well. And, of course, there are many in this profession whose focus is exactly that. They run clinics for the poor and survive through small contributions. God bless them. They are true beacons of light who have taken the meaning of their oath seriously and are living it daily.
But if our healthcare system depended solely on these charitable souls, the line to get in to see your doctor would extend across the country. No, most of us depend on the dispensation of our medical services from practitioners who have a dual mandate – to take care of the sick and to make a profit doing it. Unless we all suddenly start receiving Manna from Heaven, each of us has to do something to pay our way through life – a practice which we call “earning a living.”
Although it is not our customary way of thinking about it, I believe that it is only fair to call medicine, just like banking, a business. And just as in the case of egregious behavior on the part of some bankers, we also have the right to call into question the motivation which guides some in the medical industry.
About twenty years ago I remember speaking with the partner in a consulting firm that looked to improve the efficiency of the way in which hospitals functioned. He was a good friend and the two of us used to share horror stories about our respective businesses.
Randy told me about speaking with two hospitals (the only two hospitals) in a relatively small town in downstate Indiana. Both of them were struggling to make it financially and they needed his firm’s help. So he sat down with the administrators and senior staff of the hospitals over a week’s time to review their activities. He returned to Chicago and spent a few days writing his report and scheduled a return visit to discuss it with both staffs.
Given their precarious financial positions, the first thing on his agenda was to discuss with them the fact that they had both placed orders for a new piece of medical equipment. It was some sort of imaging machine and the cost which each had committed to incur was over $1.5 million. The doctors on staff at both hospitals were in agreement that once it was delivered, the equipment would only be used once or twice a month.
So Randy suggested that one of the hospitals cancel their order and that they share the cost of the equipment and decide at which hospital it would be installed. As he put it, describing the reaction to this recommendation, “You would have thought I was talking to a bunch of nuns and called the Pope the Anti-Christ.”
Despite the frosty reception to this statement he went on to explain the finances which lay behind his thinking.
“You can expect to be reimbursed approximately $2,000 per procedure. If both hospitals combined do two of these a month, that comes to about $50,000 per year. With only one imaging machine it would take thirty years to recoup your investment – and with two, it would obviously take sixty years. But with the progress that is being made in this kind of technology you can expect that this equipment will be obsolete in ten years or less – so the fact is that you will never recover your investment – not even on one machine. Buying two is even more absurd.”
He continued his presentation and was gratified that they liked at least some of his proposals on how to improve efficiency. Sadly, these represented the smallest improvement in the hospitals’ balance sheets. They rejected all those which would have truly made a difference. And, simply out of hubris, both hospitals took delivery of their new imaging equipment. One hospital couldn’t have its rival look more modern and up-to-date than they were.
Several years passed and Randy and I got together one night for dinner. During our conversation he asked if I remembered his telling me about these two hospitals. I had.
He said, “Well, the end of the story is that one of them closed their doors last week.”
When we think of holding on to our virtue we often see this in terms of being able to resist the temptations money offers. But if we really delve into the subject, being able to overcome our egos is just as significant a challenge. We see that in the behavior of our “celebrities” and occasionally we see that in two small hospitals in southern Indiana.
Does virtue have a price? Indeed. And if we forego our responsibility to hold on to it the price is very dear – and it is one for which we all pay.